Questions and Answers on Lead in the Food Supply

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What is lead?

Lead (Pb) is a naturally occurring mineral that’s found throughout our environment.  In the U.S., we are exposed to lead through a number of sources including soil, air, water, dust and paint.  At much smaller levels, lead can be detected in many plant based foods and beverages.

How does lead get into our food supply?

Lead is naturally found in the environment (air, water and soil) where many plants that are important to our food supply grow.  Plants take in small amounts of lead and other naturally occurring compounds as they mature.

Lead amounts can be reduced or removed to a safe level during food processing.  Any levels detected in the finished product have to be below the limits set by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). 

What levels has FDA established for lead?

The FDA ensures our food supply is safe by providing guidance on the foods and beverages we consume on a daily basis.  Guidance is determined by the Total Diet Study (TDS) which is the agency’s ongoing market basket survey where data on 280 core foods in our food supply is collected and analyzed for nutrients as well as naturally occurring contaminants such as lead.  Specific guidance levels for lead in food include:

  • Candy consumed by small children – 100ppb
  • Imported dried fruits – 100ppb
  • Lead in bottled water – 5ppb
  • Lead in fruit juices – 50ppb

Levels are different due to variances in consumption by specific populations.  In other words, we typically drink more water than fruit juices.

What are global health authorities doing to reduce lead in food?

The CODEX Alimentarius Commission, a joint Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and World Health Organization (WHO) (FHO/WHO) program to set global standards for food, serves to provide safe reference levels for contaminants such as lead.  These levels are deemed suitable for all nations that adhere to the CODEX global standards.  The CODEX Committee on Contaminants in Food (CCCF) is currently focused on setting maximum levels for lead in select fruits and vegetables.  The U.S. utilizes the CODEX maximum level as part of the regulatory framework and guidance for the food industry.

Putting Risk in Perspective

Given FDA’s long–standing record for regulatory oversight and guidance for industry to ensure a safe food supply, the agency will act quickly to resolve a potential threat or public health concern for lead in food.  Given all that we currently know, the FDA and other regulatory bodies have not recommended any change to your diet or to your family’s dietHealth professionals often recommend getting a variety of foods in your diet in order to reach optimal nutrient needs and achieve overall health.