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UNLV research puts heat on FDA to more tightly regulate hot sauce imports


Sam Morris

UNLV researchers Shawn Gerstenberger and Jennifer Berger with some of the hot sauces they tested for lead Wednesday, July 17, 2013.

In a first-of-its-kind study, UNLV researchers examining imported hot sauces are recommending greater regulation and further testing after they found lead concentrations in some brands exceeded U.S. standards established for other food items.

Jennifer Berger Ritchie and Shawn Gerstenberger, who both work in UNLV’s department of environmental and occupational health, purchased 25 bottles of imported hot sauces from a handful of grocery stores in Clark County. All of the hot sauces were manufactured in Mexico or elsewhere in Central or South America.

“We’ve done a lot of work in the past with childhood lead poisoning and found a lot of interesting issues with lead in imported candies from Mexico that contain two primary products, peppers and salt,” Gerstenberger said. “We did a lot of work on those and had them removed from shelves, and then we started to look at hot sauces because they have the same ingredients.”

Four of the 25 imported hot sauces, 16 percent, exceeded the Food and Drug Administration’s standard for lead levels in candy, 0.1 ppm (parts per million). There is no FDA standard specifically for condiments or seasonings.

The four sauces over the standard are Salsa Picante de Chile Habanero, El Pato Salsa Picante, Salsa Habanera and Bufalo Salsa Clasica. Further analysis of different bottles of the hot sauces that initially tested over the standard showed lead levels fluctuated between bottles. The additional tests showed bottles with lead contamination both above and below the standard. In all, 88 percent of the sauces had detectable levels of lead.

The researchers used estimates on dietary intake to determine a worse-case scenario in which the most susceptible child hypothetically consumed the most lead-contaminated hot sauce for year. They found such an intake would increase the blood lead level by approximately 1.8 ug/dl (micrograms/deciliter). The Center for Disease Control “blood lead level of concern” is 10 ug/dl.

“It definitely adds to their exposure, but it’s not anything that someone would be lead poisoned just because they are eating hot sauce,” Berger Ritchie said. “We are more concerned about lead-based paint in older homes.”

The researchers said more studies would have to be done to determine patterns and whether there were any commonalities with the brands that tested above the standard.

“We are just a little cautious in the interpretation,” Gerstenberger said. “There needs to be a larger scale study that looks at the actual product going into the bottles.”

Pregnant women and children under 6 years old are two populations that should be especially wary of lead contamination. Lead exposure can affect nearly every system in the body, and, because lead exposure often occurs with no obvious symptoms, it frequently goes unrecognized.

“The problem with lead and lead poisoning is that it is a chronic type of problem,” Gerstenberger said. “It’s not like other things where you get exposed and right away get sick. It’s small doses over time that build up. So, it’s not necessarily that hot sauce is going to poison you or anything like that, but it can contribute to your total burden.”

The researchers believe lead contamination in the hot sauces comes from the peppers and salt. Peppers can be contaminated by lead in the soil. Contamination also could come from the use of mined salt. Washing peppers before processing and substituting sea salt for mined salt could significantly reduce lead levels, the UNLV scientists said.

Berger Ritchie and Gerstenberger also tested a hot sauce to determine whether the packaging was leaching lead into the sauce but found no change in the lead levels over time. However, some of the packaging materials did exceed the FDA recommended levels for lead.

The researchers are advocating for more studies and better oversight, including more rigorous screening and specific standard for hot sauce and other condiments.

The United States Department of Agriculture maintains standards for condiment acidity levels in order to be classified as hot, extra hot, green, chipotle, habanero and garlic. In a possible sign that greater oversight is needed, more than half of the sauces tested were not compliant with USDA pH guidelines.

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