FDA, heavy metals and baby food

By Jonathan Sharp

IIn 2019, the non-profit organization Healthy Baby Bright Futures released a study on the contents of infant food products. The results were alarming, as they indicated that of the samples tested, only 5% were recorded as clean. The other 95% of tested products contained significant effects of one or more toxic heavy metals.

These alarming numbers were validated by a report to Congress from the Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy in February 2021.

Dangerous amounts of lead, cadmium, mercury, and inorganic arsenic have been identified in many products from leading baby food manufacturers across the United States. These heavy metals do not have a safe level of exposure and are known to be neurotoxins that lead to lower IQ and cognitive impairments.

The subcommittee’s investigation focused on seven major manufacturers, and requested internal data on testing policies and results.

Hain, Nurture, Beech-Nut, and Gerber complied with a Congressional investigation. Sprout, Walmart and Campbell all declined to cooperate, raising suspicions that they might be hiding evidence of higher concentrations of toxic metals in their products.

Their reluctance to share information is not surprising given the high levels of heavy metals found in the companies’ products that have made internal data available.

Mercury was five times higher than safety levels in both components and finished products, cadmium was 69 times higher, arsenic exceeded safety standards 91 times, and lead contents were 177 times higher.

Likewise, substandard testing practices and standards used by manufacturers raise concerns. Beech-Nut used additives high in arsenic, only tested Hain ingredients, Nurture purposely sold products despite results from heavy metal testing, and most companies tested rarely, if any, for mercury.

These harmful elements in baby food pose a significant risk of toxic exposure to vulnerable infants.

Due to their higher intake of nutrients and less developed filtering and immune systems, cadmium, lead, arsenic and mercury accumulate in tissues and act as neurotoxins over time. Multiple studies have indicated a significant relationship between exposure to heavy metals and the development of autism spectrum disorders.

After these facts were publicly disclosed, the industry’s response was considered tentative at best. While Beech-Nut decided to take an indefinite leave of absence from the market and recall some of its tainted products, Gerber was reluctant to do the same.

The manufacturers’ lack of interest in addressing these issues immediately caught the attention of the Food and Drug Administration.

Taking into account the troubling findings of the subcommittee, the Food and Drug Administration began a plan of action closer to zero in April 2021. The FDA’s four-phase strategy seeks to gradually reduce heavy metal contents in baby food products, and establish actionable plans for 2024 or even longer .

While the plan’s intentions and goals are commendable, it has also been criticized for its lack of urgency and redundant steps. More precisely, the first two stages related to data assessment and formulation of action levels are unnecessary given the available data provided by reputable sources.

Priority should be given to the last two phases that focus on practical application and implementation of effective measures. Doing so will ensure faster performance, and define the levels of interim measures for heavy metals that manufacturers must adhere to before 2024.

In September 2021, the subcommittee released an updated follow-up to its initial report. Regarding the FDA’s plan, the report’s authors note that the agency should speed up the process by setting final standards for heavy metals sooner and requiring manufacturers to test their final products.

The FDA has imposed only one limit targeting heavy metals in baby foods, specifically arsenic in baby rice cereal at a contested rate of 100 parts per billion (parts per billion). This hardly regulates one harmful ingredient out of four in a narrow subsection of the baby food market.

The lack of regulation allows manufacturers to skip the relatively inexpensive tests that would ensure the safety of their products, apparently putting profits ahead of ethics.

Seeking a legislative resolution, the subcommittee chairperson, Congressman Raja Krishnamurthy, proposed the Baby Food Safety Act of 2021. The bill would immediately impose temporary safety levels for mercury, lead, Cadmium and arsenic.

The FDA will also monitor manufacturers’ compliance with the new standards and periodically review test results to gradually reduce levels of toxic metals.

Until effective measures are in place, it is the responsibility of baby food manufacturers to ensure that their products are safe and do not pose a risk of toxic exposure to their intended consumers.

Ingredients must be obtained from land with low concentrations of heavy metals. Companies must improve their hiring standards to retain trusted professionals. Maintaining clean facilities should be a priority and require the right personnel to accomplish such a diligent task.

Routine product quality testing ensures that heavy metals are kept to permissible levels. Finally, manufacturers must use clear labels that accurately indicate the contents of the product.

Jonathan Sharp is the chief financial officer of the Environmental Litigation Group in Alabama.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.