FDA Proposes Limits on Lead and Arsenic in Baby Food as Amidst Manufacturer Lawsuits


The U.S. government has proposed an action plan to eliminate levels of toxic elements in baby foods. The FDA proposes to eliminate lead and arsenic, which are common elements found in baby foods.

According to a recent proposal by the Food and Drug Administration, the plan, called “Closer to Zero” will propose limits on arsenic, lead and mercury in baby food, with the agency taking action two months after a congressional report found products from several of the country’s largest manufacturers “tainted” with toxic heavy metals. While the FDA has established acceptable levels of inorganic arsenic in bottled water, it doesn’t regulate metals in infant and toddler food other than, starting last year, arsenic in rice cereal. The agency stated:

“We recognize that Americans want zero toxic elements in the foods eaten by their babies and young children. In reality, because these elements occur in our air, water and soil, there are limits to how low these levels can be […] the FDA’s goal, therefore, is to reduce the levels of arsenic, lead, cadmium and mercury in these foods to the greatest extent possible.”

Gather and Review Data

According to experts, heavy metals find their way into fruits and vegetables from soil or water contaminated by sources including pesticides and fertilizers. Exposure to heavy metals can harm adults and children, but babies and toddlers are especially vulnerable given their smaller size and developing brains. Exposure over time can result in neurodevelopmental disabilities, including autism in children, experts say.

The FDA intends to review the science, set maximum acceptable levels and monitor compliance by baby food makers, the agency through the “Closer to Zero,” strategy will draft a standard for maximum levels of lead in baby food by April 2022 and arsenic by April 2024, with a final ruling on information coming by April 2024 followed by one on arsenic. The agency said it would also gather and review data on cadmium and mercury. The toxin levels would be issued as guidance, and adhering to them would be voluntary for manufacturers.

Propose Limits on Metals

The FDA’s action drew muted praise from advocacy groups, including the Environmental Working Group, which called on the agency to take more decisive and speedier action on heavy metals. Scott Faber, EWG’s senior vice president for government affairs, said in a statement:

“It’s good that the FDA is finally proposing to propose limits on metals in baby food […] setting draft levels will send a powerful signal to the food industry to do better. But proposing to propose is not the same as setting mandatory standards that baby food companies must meet. Parents should not have to wait — and Congress should not wait, but instead set interim levels in the law that companies must meet right away.”

Gerber and other major baby food makers formed the Baby Food Council in 2019 with the goal of curbing heavy metals in baby foods to “as low as reasonably achievable.” Gerber — the country’s biggest baby food manufacturer — said in a statement that it welcomed the opportunity to work with the FDA to make “the food supply even safer for infants and young children.”

Eating a Variety of Healthy Foods

The FDA’s move follows the recent introduction of the Baby Food Safety Act of 2021 by House Democrats Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois and Tony Cárdenas of California and Senators Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Tammy Duckworth of Illinois. The measure would require the FDA to set limits for baby cereal and other infant and toddler foods for cadmium, inorganic arsenic, lead and mercury.

Stricter rules and regulations for testing and limiting​the number of heavy metals in foods for babies and toddlers are most important. But there are several steps parents can take now to reduce the risk that kids will be exposed to toxic metals in their diet, and from other sources:

Serve a variety of foods. Give your child a well-balanced diet that includes various fruits, vegetables (wash in cool water before preparing and serving), grains, and lean protein. Eating multiple healthy foods that are rich in essential nutrients can lower the exposure to toxic metals and other contaminants found in some foods.

Read the labels. Multi-ingredient baby food blends may be a good option. Be aware that many have the same first or second ingredient, though. For example, different flavor blends, like kale/pear and spinach/pumpkin, may actually both have sweet potatoes as their first ingredient. It’s essential to read the ingredients label to be sure you are offering a true variety of foods.

Switch up your grains. Fortified infant cereals can be a good source of nutrition for babies, but rice cereal does not need to be the first or only cereal used. Rice tends to absorb more arsenic from groundwater than other crops. You can include a variety of grains in your baby’s diet, including oat, barley, couscous, quinoa, farro, and bulgur. Multi-grain infant cereals can be a good choice. Try to avoid using rice milk and brown rice syrup, which is sometimes used as a sweetener in processed toddler foods.

The World Health Organization and the Food and Drug Administration have defined tolerable daily intakes of heavy metals. However, it’s essential to recognize that for many heavy metals, including lead and arsenic, there is no daily intake that is completely devoid of long-term health risk.

For lead, the FDA considers three micrograms per day or more to be cause for concern in children, well below the level for adults (12.5 micrograms per day).

Young children’s bodies are smaller than adults, and leaders can’t be stored as readily in the bone, so the same dose of heavy metals causes much greater blood concentrations in young children where it can do more damage. In addition, young brains are more rapidly developing and are therefore at greater risk of neurological damage.


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