By Jonathan Sharp | Guest Contributor
Since 2019, when the results of the study “What’s in My Baby Food?” were made public by the non-profit organization Healthy Babies Bright Futures, parents have become more and more outraged concerning the presence of cadmium, arsenic, lead, and mercury in the products they feed their children. However, the issue of heavy metals in baby food dates to 2017, when Clean Label Project, another non-profit organization, found that up to 30% of baby food on the market contains arsenic, lead, and mercury.
The Subcommittee conducted the most recent and thorough investigation on Economic and Consumer Policy, whose appalling findings were revealed in March 2021. Seven major baby food companies were asked to participate in the investigation, but only four agreed. The manufacturers that responded to the requests were Beech-Nut, Hain, Nurture, and Gerber, while those that outright refused to collaborate were Wal-Mart, Campbell, and Sprout Organic Foods.
Nurture was discovered to sell baby food containing 180 parts per billion (ppb) arsenic, while the safe limit is 10 ppb. Even worse, Beech-Nut used ingredients with over 900 ppb arsenic. As for lead, Nurture allowed finished baby food products testing as high as 641 ppb lead on the market, whereas the safe limit is 5 ppb. Lastly, Beech-Nut used 105 ingredients containing over 20 ppb cadmium, when the safe limit is 5 ppb, whereas some tested significantly higher, up to 344 ppb cadmium.
The FDA Is Extremely Slow in Taking Measures to Minimize the Health Threat
Shockingly, there are no regulations for heavy metals in baby food, except for arsenic in infant rice cereal, which is allowed in a concentration of a maximum of 100 ppb. Nevertheless, this limit is considered unsafe by most health agencies and organizations. The FDA does not regulate the remaining three heavy metals of concern in baby food, which gives companies leverage to abuse the manufacturing process and thereby skip testing for toxic agents. Testing for heavy metals costs between $50 and $100 per sample, but major companies with a high revenue can easily afford it.
As we can see from the findings of the congressional report, most baby food companies test for cadmium, arsenic, lead, and mercury, but what they fail to do is discontinue the manufacturing of products with dangerous concentrations of heavy metals and recall the contaminated products that are already on the market. Following last year’s report, there have been only two voluntary recalls, one by Wal-Mart and Beech-Nut. Nonetheless, what they took off the market represents a small portion of the baby food contaminated with heavy metals. According to the congressional report, up to 96% of these products contain one toxic metal. This percentage includes baby food with trace amounts of heavy metals as well.
Because there have been so many discussions on baby food contamination with heavy metals, the FDA came up with the “Closer to Zero” plan, a strategy the agency believes will solve the issue forever, albeit over several years. However, the “Closer to Zero” plan has numerous drawbacks and takes several years for the limits of the heavy metal in baby food to be enforced. On the opposite side of the spectrum, there is the Baby Food Safety Act of 2021, which proposes immediate measures to efficiently solve the problem of cadmium, arsenic, lead, and mercury in infant and toddler food.
A Breakdown of the FDA’s “Closer to Zero” Plan
The agency claims that it will identify the actions necessary to reduce exposure to heavy metals from food eaten by infants and toddlers to as low as possible, which is a great idea in and of itself. Nevertheless, how the FDA proposes to apply is frustrating and unnecessarily long. Firstly, the FDA wants to “evaluate the scientific basis for action levels,” meaning that it would assess existing data from routine testing of the food supply, research on chemical analytical methods, toxicological assays, risk assessments, and other relevant scientific information.
This step is futile because we already know a lot about the dangers of heavy metals and what health problems exposure can cause, one of the most severe being autism. Plenty of reputable studies support the link between heavy metal exposure during infancy and autism and learning disabilities, lower IQ, and cognitive damage.
Secondly, the FDA would like to “propose action levels,” which is another thing that we have from numerous national and international health agencies. Consequently, this process step can be skipped as well, as the FDA could regulate heavy metals in baby food by allowing a maximum of 10 ppb arsenic, 5 ppb cadmium, 5 ppb lead, and 2 ppb mercury. These are the safe limits most health agencies agree on. Children are considerably more vulnerable to heavy metal exposure because they have a higher uptake rate by the gastrointestinal tract and an undeveloped detoxification system.
The third step the FDA would like to take to tackle the issue of heavy metals in baby food is to “consult with stakeholders on proposed action levels, including the achievability and feasibility of action levels.” Once again, this is unnecessary since we know that companies would keep the heavy metals content at a minimum if they strived for it.
Lastly, the final step proposed by the FDA in the agency’s “Closer to Zero” plan is known as “finalize action levels,” meaning that the limits it found to be suitable as safe limits in infant and toddler food would become effective nationwide. The FDA’s estimated time concerning finalizing the “Closer to Zero” plan is April 2024 or beyond.
Therefore, we can understand why so many parents are outraged by this strategy, as it would take too long to become effective, and their children would continue to ingest tainted food. On October 21, a coalition of 24 Attorneys General petitioned the FDA to set maximum limits for heavy metals in baby food a priority. Their petition criticized the agency because the “Closer to Zero” plan does not include sufficiently aggressive timelines for reducing heavy metal levels in baby food.
The Baby Food Safety Act of 2021, A Feasible Measure to Minimize the Presence of Heavy Metals in Baby Food
In the spring of 2021, the bill known as the Baby Food Safety Act was introduced in the House by Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi. The scope of this bill is to establish the maximum concentrations allowable of the four heavy metals of concern in baby food, which is defined as products sold for children up to 36 months old. Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi proposes the same safe limits of cadmium, arsenic, lead, and mercury in infant and toddler food as those that most health agencies and organizations agree upon.
The initiator of the Baby Food Safety Act of 2021 had his Subcommittee on economic and consumer policy issue a follow-up claiming that the industry “consistently cuts corners and puts profit over the health of babies and children.” While the Baby Food Safety Act of 2021 has not yet passed the Senate, it is pending, and we should expect to hear updates about it shortly. If it becomes effective, the risk of young children developing autism will drastically decrease, and baby food will become completely safe to eat for infants and toddlers.
About the Author
Jonathan Sharp has been the Chief Financial Officer at Environmental Litigation Group, PC, a law firm specializing in toxic exposure. His responsibilities include case evaluation, collecting and distributing the funds, managing firm assets, financial analysis, and client relations.