FDA’s Response to Subcommittee Report on Toxic Metals in Baby Food

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The FDA has filed an official response regarding a report that recently showed the potential danger posed by toxic heavy metals found in baby foods manufactured by several major companies.

The report, “Baby Foods Are Tainted with Dangerous Levels of Arsenic, Lead, Cadmium, and Mercury,” was released by the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy on February 4. The Subcommittee stated that FDA should require baby food manufacturers to test their finished products for toxic heavy metals and require any toxic heavy metals be reported on food labeling. It also stated that FDA should set maximum levels of toxic heavy metals allowed in baby foods. The agency said in the report: 

“The FDA has been actively working on this issue using a risk-based approach to prioritize and target the agency’s efforts. Consumers should know that FDA scientists routinely monitor levels of toxic elements in baby foods, along with other foods consumed in the country’s diet, through the Total Diet Study […] the FDA also monitors baby food under the FDA’s compliance program for Toxic Elements in Food and Foodware, and Radionuclides in Food and through targeted sampling assignments.”

Inorganic Arsenic and Patulin

FDA cited its work in sampling infant rice cereal for arsenic, which it says has resulted in safer products on the market, along with its recent court order to stop a U.S. company from distributing adulterated juice that had potentially harmful levels of inorganic arsenic and patulin (a mycotoxin). However, the CFSAN update did not specifically address the companies or baby foods called out in the Subcommittee’s report.

Evidence of significant amounts of arsenic or lead in specific children’s foods such as rice, juice, and spices has emerged over the last two decades. FDA’s responses to these findings in the past have generally focused on specific foods and individual heavy metals.

That case-by-case approach began to change in January 2017 when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), faced with calls for action on lead in drinking water after the tragedy in Flint, Michigan, released a report identifying the relative contribution of water, food, soil/dust, and air to children’s lead exposure.[1] The analysis revealed that food was a significant source of exposure to lead for three-quarters of all children who live in homes without lead pipes or lead-based paint hazards.

Heavy Metal in Food

Prompted by EPA’s report, EDF evaluated FDA testing data to show that 20% of baby food had the detectable lead. A year later, we evaluated FDA data on infant and toddler food that revealed concerns with arsenic, cadmium, and lead. Later in 2018, Consumer Reports and then in 2019, Healthy Babies Bright Futures (HBBF) reported on their own testing of baby foods. HBBF revealed results for specific brands and concluded that 95% contained detectable arsenic, lead, cadmium, or mercury levels.

All of this helped build the case that what FDA and industry have done in the past has not been sufficient to protect children’s food from heavy metal contamination and that more needs to be done. Much of the attention has been on baby food products, except for canned food. The evidence for heavy metal in food points to the environment, not processing, as the primary source of the arsenic, cadmium, and lead in food. 

For arsenic, rice is the dominant source of exposure from food. In contrast, many foods contain lead from soil contaminated from the leaded gasoline, paint, pesticides, and natural sources. Cadmium represents a similar challenge to lead. These levels add up to significant exposure in children’s diets.

Fresh Fruits and Vegetables

Thanks to a decade of research, the best practices to significantly reduce arsenic in rice are well understood. But for lead and cadmium, the evidence is limited, and best practices are focused on washing and peeling the produce.

Parents should demand more from the retailers and brands they rely on and the government agencies responsible for protecting them. In the meantime, they should continue reducing exposure by thoroughly washing and peeling fresh fruits and vegetables and, as HBBF suggests, avoiding foods with low nutritious value that are often contaminated.

Even in the trace amounts found in food, toxic metals can erode a child’s IQ, cause developmental and behavior problems, and impact kidneys and liver, according to the Food and Drug Administration. Young children, especially babies, are at highest risk says the FDA, because their brains and organs aren’t fully developed, their intestinal absorption of toxic elements is higher and their food intake to body weight is greater.

More Action Is Needed

Prior studies by the FDA and others have found concerning levels of toxic metals in baby foods. A recent analysis by Healthy Babies Bright Futures tested 168 different baby foods from 61 different manufacturers. They found 95% of the baby foods contained lead, 73% contained arsenic, 75% contained cadmium and 32% contained mercury. One fourth of the foods contained all four heavy metals. The report added:

“This is cause for concern but not alarm. There’s not any one brand or a single container of food we tested that is cause for panic in any way. These are fairly low levels […] the problem are that these exposures add up from meal to meal and day to day, and it’s that cumulative impact that’s significant.”

More action is needed by major baby food companies and the FDA, the report said. While the FDA has been investigating how to reduce exposure and some levels of arsenic in rice and juice are lower than a decade ago, exposure is still too high. Study author Jane Houlihan, research director for Healthy Babies Better Futures, said in a statement.

“When FDA acts, companies respond. We need the FDA to use their authority more effectively, and much more quickly, to reduce toxic heavy metals in baby foods.”

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