CDC: Decorative Dust on Birthday Cake Made Rhode Island Children Sick

The CDC released its final report on an investigation launched after six children became sick after eating cake at a Rhode Island birthday party in 2018. The CDC found that bakers and consumers need to be aware that a label of "non-toxic" on a product does not mean the product is safe to eat.

Providence, RI (WLNE) – The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a final report about a birthday cake that researchers believe made some Rhode Island children sick back in 2018.  CDC researchers say the illnesses can be attributed to a product known as “luster dust”, which is commonly used to decorate cakes. The multi-year study found that bakers and consumers need to be more aware that the label “non-toxic” on a product does not mean that it is safe to eat. These findings align with the results of an investigation conducted by the Rhode Island Department of Health at the time of the illnesses.

The CDC’s findings were released on Thursday in the “Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report”.

The report says that six children became sick after attending a birthday party in Rhode Island in October 2018. One common denominator amongst the children: all of them had eaten the birthday cake. The children later experienced vomiting and diarrhea. The CDC says the children’s symptoms were consistent with heavy metal poisoning. Researchers determined that the culprit was the rose gold dusting used on the frosting of the cake.

The cake had been made at a Rhode Island bakery. Right after the illnesses occurred in 2018, a team from the Rhode Island Department of Health investigated the bakery and went step-by-step through the bakery’s cake-making process. The CDC report says the luster dust was “added to a butter extract and painted on the cake with a brush in intervals to produce a thick layer.”

The report also says the luster dust was labeled “non-toxic”, “non-edible” and “for decoration only”.

RIDOH conducted lab tests that showed that the luster dust used on the cake contained high amounts of copper. Researchers believe the dust led to copper metal poisoning in the children.

A team from RIDOH also visited other bakeries and found widespread use of non-edible luster dust.

Back at the time of the incident, RIDOH issued an alert to bakeries to let them know that a “non-toxic” label does not mean a product is edible. RIDOH also noted that luster dusts list their ingredients on the label.

Later in 2018, RIDOH presented their luster dust findings at a national food safety conference. A team from Missouri was at that conference, so when a child got sick after eating cake in their state a few months later, they began a similar investigation. In that case, they found that a 1-year-old child became ill after eating bright yellow primrose petal dust that had been used on a birthday cake.  Lab tests showed the dust contained lead. The FDA was made aware of the investigation in both states and the CDC also investigated.

In summary, the concluding paragraphs of the CDC report say the following:

“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. A recent FDA advisory (2) indicated that luster dust products should only be consumed if they are labeled as edible and contain a list of ingredients. By federal regulation under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, the FDA requires that food additives meet certain safety and labeling guidelines (8). A premarket approval process is required before any listed color additive is deemed safe for its intended use or uses in or on food, drugs, or cosmetics. This premarket approval includes an assessment of toxicity based on availability of sufficient safety testing data; however, lack of such data does not deem a substance nontoxic. Even if labeled as nontoxic, these inedible products are intended for decoration only and should not be consumed. When an FDA investigation determines that a regulatory violation has occurred, the agency can take a number of enforcement actions to protect the public’s health (8). Specific enforcement activities include actions to correct and prevent violations, remove products or goods from the market, and punish offenders; this can range from issuing warning letters about violations to recommending criminal fines and prosecutions. Labeling indicating that a product is nontoxic does not imply that the product is safe for consumption. Explicit labeling indicating that nonedible products are not safe for human consumption is needed to prevent illness and unintentional poisonings. Educating consumers, commercial bakers, and public health professionals about potential hazards of items used in food preparation is essential to preventing illness and unintentional poisoning from toxic metals and other nonedible ingredients.”

To read the full CDC report on this investigation, click here:




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