I am signed up to the e-mails the FDA sends out about product recalls in the US. I am on the lookout for anything that might affect the cosmetic industry, but most of the time cosmetics don’t even get a mention. There really aren’t too many ways you can get cosmetics that wrong. But I still come across a few interesting stories, including a couple of reports lately of lead cropping up in food. The latest is a couple of batches of turmeric that have been withdrawn by the supplier because of what they describe as excessive lead levels.
Unfortunately they don’t say what these levels are. Much as I find this frustrating I can see why they might not want to release the numbers. For a start, in any lab work you will produce a range of results. It is one of the skills that chemists need to develop to work out what the real picture is from a set of numbers. But that isn’t a skill that journalists have, so they’ll just go for the biggest number in the report. So if you have 20 readings that are acceptable and one that is out of specification – well that’s the one that will end up in the media.
The other problem with heavy metals, and this is particularly true of lead, is that there isn’t really an acceptable level. Lead is in absolutely everything if you look hard enough. Measure some fresh vegetables and there’s a good chance you’ll get a reading in the region of 0.001ppm of lead. The actual level will vary depending on what is in the soil where the plant was grown and how the plant absorbed the minerals and any number of other factors. Even if you can’t detect any that probably just means it is below the level you can detect it at.
So there’s going to be some lead. How much is too much? The fact is that nobody knows. There is a WHO limit for the amount in drinking water of 0.01ppm – but when you look at the notes that they released on this limit in 2011 it is pretty clear that they have set it without a huge safety margin above levels that could be associated with health issues. The reason they did this was simply that there isn’t any practical way of ensuring that the lead can be controlled at a lower level. It is a naturally occurring material, and it occurs naturally all over the place.
If you can’t get lead out of drinking water below 0.01ppm then there is simply no chance of ensuring that food doesn’t have higher levels from time to time. There really is only one practical strategy open to food manufacturers at the moment. You can monitor lead levels and take action when you get figures that are higher than you normally get. That way you can be sure that if there is any risk to consumers you are at least not letting it get any worse. And if you keep this up consistently over time then the level of lead getting into people will go down as each instance of an increase will enable a potential problem to be identified, investigated and improved.
This approach is similar to the kinds of quality systems that have revolutionised modern manufacturing and which mean that nowadays when you buy a car it works fine from day one. Nobody younger than about 40 will have ever experienced having to ‘run in’ a car to sort out all the glitches that used to be common. And you wouldn’t even be able to build an iPad at all without this devotion to continual improvement in quality and production methods that the electronic industry has been at for decades. The effects are less dramatic but no less real when applied to food production.
The problem with this approach is that it just sounds a bit pathetic, particularly if reduced to soundbites. “How much lead is in your turmeric?” “Er, not much. It is a bit complicated to explain…” , “Is the level safe?”, “We don’t really know”, “So you can’t assure your customers that your products are safe to eat?”. You’ve got a PR disaster on your hands already.
So I can appreciate why the details aren’t being released. It isn’t actually great news that the stuff got onto the market in the first place, but it is sort of encouraging that the company realised and took action when they had the results. I have a feeling that the levels that triggered the recall are probably not all that great and that nobody is going to come to any harm as a result. The fact is that the food we eat today is probably the healthiest food humans have ever had access to, and the likelihood is that it is only going to get better.