Food & Drinks

Cake Decorating Dust Leads To Toxic Metal Poisoning In Children

Heavy metals including lead and copper were found in cake decorating dust after several children became ill after birthday parties, according to a newly released CDC report.

The report looked at two separate incidents in Rhode Island and Missouri in 2018 and 2019 involving “luster dust” – often used for decorating cakes, candies and chocolates.

In the first incident in 2019, the Missouri department for Health and Senior services were investigating a case of a 1 year old child who was found to have an elevated blood level of lead. Lead is a metal which is well-known to be a potent neurotoxin and is particularly dangerous to children as it affects brain and nervous system development. The investigation revealed that the source of the lead was a “primrose petal dust” luster dust used to make decorative flowers for the child’s home-made birthday cake.

Supplied by a Florida cake decorating company, the dust was marketed as a ‘non toxic’ color for decorating baked goods, chocolate, sugar art and candies. Scientific analysis of the luster dust found that shockingly, 25% of it was powdered lead. The investigators immediately issued a press release warning consumers about ‘primrose petal dust,’ advising immediate disposal of any products containing the dust as an ingredient and urging any children or pregnant women who thought they might have consumed the products, to get their lead levels tested. It is not known whether the child suffered any long-term damage from consuming the lead.

In the Rhode Island incident, six children aged between 1-11 years old became ill after attending a birthday party. The children experienced vomiting and diarrhea and one child was taken to the emergency department. Investigators determined that the birthday cake, covered with golden frosting had been eaten by all of the sick children and that other children at the party who had eaten no cake, or not eaten the frosting, were unaffected, leading the investigators to suspect that the frosting specifically was the cause of the symptoms.

The cake was traced back to a local bakery and investigators visited the bakery to observe their processes to get further clues as to why the children had become sick after eating the cake. They determined that the luster dust used on the cake was labelled as “rose gold dust” and also marked as “nonedible, non toxic and for decoration only.” They found further containers of luster dust and seized them, along with the “rose gold dust” from the premises and also stopped the bakery selling other products covered in the dust, including pretzels and cake pops. The investigators were also able to collect a leftover slice of cake from the party for analysis.

Analysis of the luster dust on the cake revealed that it was not at all edible or non-toxic, it was in fact fine copper powder, imported from a manufacturer who initially sold it with the intent it be used as a metallic pigment for goods such as floor coverings. The CDC warns that ingesting high levels of copper can cause vomiting, diarrhea and in extreme cases, liver and kidney damage. Analysis of 28 other luster dust samples for the bakery marked as inedible found elevated levels of several other metals including aluminum, barium, lead and nickel. The investigators then visited other bakeries in the area, finding widespread use of nonedible luster dust on foodstuffs. Following this, guidance was issued to bakeries to clarify that “non toxic” luster dusts could indeed still be inedible and that care should be taken to ensure any luster dust used was “food safe.”

The report concludes: “The use of luster dust in homemade and commercially prepared goods is a popular trend; however, not all glitters are created equal. Although some glitters and dusts are edible and safe for use on food, many others are not.”

In 2018, the FDA issued an alert advising all home and commercial bakers to carefully check any luster dust for an ingredients list and to ensure they were clearly labelled as “edible” before using.

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