Even though they naturally occur in soil and water, cadmium, arsenic, lead, and mercury, all of which are heavy metals, are extremely dangerous for our health. Children are particularly susceptible to experiencing the negative health impact of heavy metals because they have a higher uptake rate by the gastrointestinal tract and an undeveloped detoxification system.

The FDA’s Slow Initiative To Set Up Limits For Heavy Metals In Baby Food Is Cause For Great Concern

Even though they naturally occur in soil and water, cadmium, arsenic, lead, and mercury, all of which are heavy metals, are extremely dangerous for our health. Children are particularly susceptible to experiencing the negative health impact of heavy metals because they have a higher uptake rate by the gastrointestinal tract and an undeveloped detoxification system.

Once inside the body, cadmium, arsenic, lead, and mercury act as neurotoxins, wreaking havoc on children’s nervous systems and brains. Children may eventually develop lifelong disabling disorders with repeated exposure to heavy metals, such as autism, lower IQ, cognitive damage, and learning disabilities.

One disquieting source of heavy metals for children is store-bought baby food, the same

products meant to nourish and promote healthy development. According to the study “What’s in My Baby Food?” by Healthy Babies Bright Futures, a non-profit organization, up to 95% of baby food currently on the market contains at least one heavy metal. The researchers conducted tests on 13 different food types under 61 baby food brand names. Just 9 out of the 168 baby food containers examined had no trace of heavy metals. Alarmingly, 1 in 4 baby foods contained all four heavy metals. The disheartening results of this study are what led the Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy to lead a more in-depth investigation.

The Dangers Infants and Toddlers Are Exposed to by Being Fed Tainted Baby Food

On February 4, 2021, the results of the congressional report were made available to the public, sparking outrage in parents of infants and toddlers, and for a good reason. The Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy asked seven major baby food manufacturers to partake in the investigation, which entailed sharing their internal documents concerning testing for heavy metals in both ingredients and finished products.

While four accepted to be part of it, three outright refused to collaborate. The companies that agreed to help the investigators were Beech-Nut, Gerber, Hain, and Nurture, whereas those that decided to keep their practices private, were Campbell, Sprouts Organic Foods, and Walmart.  

According to internal documents, Hain used ingredients with up to 309 ppb arsenic when the safe limit is 10 ppm. Even worse, Beech-Nut was found to manufacture baby food containing over 900 ppb arsenic and use ingredients with as much as 886 ppb lead, when the safe limit is 5 ppm. Furthermore, some of the ingredients of Hain tested over 200 ppb lead. As for cadmium, Beech-Nut was discovered to allow ingredients with over 340 ppm cadmium in baby food, when the safe limit is 5 ppm, and Hain added ingredients with 260 ppm cadmium in its products. Finally, all four companies were found to skip testing for mercury or test for it very rarely. 

What Is the FDA Doing to Minimize the Issue of Heavy Metals in Baby Food?

Following the appalling results of the congressional report, the FDA decided to come up with a strategy to lower the concentration of toxic elements in baby food. Accordingly, the agency developed the Closer to Zero plan, which is meant to protect babies and young children against the terrible consequences of heavy metal exposure. Nevertheless, despite the laudable effort of the FDA to solve the issue, the Closer to Zero plan is loose and slow, expanding over several years. In contrast, parents need safe, non-toxic food for their children now. 

The first step of the FDA’s initiative is to evaluate the scientific basis for activity levels, more specifically to establish interim reference levels for toxic elements. Still, we already have information concerning the safe limits for cadmium, arsenic, lead, and mercury from both national and international health agencies. They have been studying the neurotoxicity of these metals in children for decades, so they are reliable sources whose information the FDA should use. Consequently, this step is unnecessary and will only slow down, reaching the goal of the Closer to Zero plan. The second step of this initiative is proposing action levels, which, once again, is futile, as we already know what the safe limit for each heavy metal should be in various types of baby food.

Consulting with stakeholders on proposed action levels is the third step of the FDA’s initiative to minimize the concentration of heavy metals in baby food. During this step, the agency proposes to assess the achievability and feasibility of the proposed action levels and the timeframes for reaching them. This should be among the first measures the FDA takes concerning solving the issue of heavy metals in baby food, as the first two steps will make the agency waste a lot of precious time since we already know the safe limits of the four heavy metals of concern. Finally, the last step of the Closer to Zero plan is finalizing action levels, which is estimated to come to fruition in the spring of 2024 or even later. 

A Coalition of Attorneys General Petition the FDA to Urge the Agency to Take Prompter Measures

On October 21, 2021, a coalition of 24 Attorneys General petitioned the FDA to prioritize maximum heavy metal concentrations in baby food. Their petition harshly criticized the agency because the Closer to Zero plan is not sufficiently aggressive for lowering cadmium, arsenic, lead, and mercury in these products. Although the coalition applauded the FDA for its Closer to Zero plan, the attorneys believe that the timeline is too loose when action to protect children is urgent and safe limits for toxic metals must be enforced immediately.  

The petition was issued following a letter sent by Attorney General James in the winter of 2021 to the acting FDA commissioner, pressing the agency to take immediate regulatory action to protect children from heavy metals in baby food. “Every day across the country, baby food companies are selling products containing dangerous levels of lead and other toxic metals, and urgent action is needed to stop it. There are common-sense, science-based actions that can drive down the levels of heavy metals in baby foods, which is why we are calling on the FDA to take these actions as soon as possible. No parent should have to worry about the safety of their children’s food,” said Attorney General James.

The Baby Food Safety Act of 2021, a Sliver of Hope for Parents of Infants and Toddlers

Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi proposed a bill known as the Baby Food Safety Act on March 26, 2021, shortly after it was found that most baby food on the market is tainted with heavy metals. This bill aims to establish the maximum concentrations permissible of heavy metals in baby food, which is defined as products for children up to 36 months old, immediately. The Baby Food Safety Act proposes a safety limit of 10 ppb arsenic, 5 ppb lead, 5 ppb cadmium, and 2 ppb mercury, which is considered safe by most health agencies.  

In addition to setting maximum limits on toxic metals in baby food, the Baby Food Safety Act of 2021 requires the FDA to periodically review these safe limits and establish limits on other toxic elements upon reviewing relevant health data. As for baby food manufacturers, facilities that handle baby food in any way must have specific controls and plans to ensure that their products comply with the limits on toxic metals established by the bill. Lastly, the Centers for Disease Control will have to carry out public awareness campaigns about the risks of heavy metals in infant and toddler food.

Seven months after releasing the congressional report about the presence of heavy metals in major brands of baby food, the initiator of the bill had his subcommittee on economic and consumer policy issue a follow-up, claiming that the industry “consistently cut corners and put profit over the health of babies and children.” The Baby Food Safety Act has not yet passed the Senate, meaning it is pending. We hope that we will hear updates about it as soon as possible. If it becomes law, the risk of children developing autism and other disabling neurological disorders will considerably diminish. Baby food will become 100% safe to consume for infants and toddlers.

About the Author

With over 20 years of experience working at Environmental Litigation Group, PC – a law firm specializing in toxic exposure located in Birmingham, Alabama – Jonathan Sharp is Chief Financial Officer, and his main responsibilities include client relations, financial analysis, the collection and distribution of the funds, management of firm assets, and case evaluation. 

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