A congressional investigation has found high levels of arsenic, lead and other toxic metals that can harm brain development in many popular baby foods, including organic brands. Arsenic, lead, cadmium, and mercury are considered harmful to human health and can remain in the environment for decades from past pesticide and herbicide use.
According to a report by the U.S. House Subcommittee, 2019 data from seven companies, including Walmart, showed four companies, Gerber, Beech-Nut, Earth’s Best Organics maker Hain Celestial and Happy Family Organics maker Nurture Inc. knowingly sold products with high levels of toxic metals. The subcommittee said Walmart, Sprout Foods, and Campbell Soup Co., which makes Plum Organics baby food, didn’t cooperate. Democratic Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois, chair of the House Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy, which conducted the investigation, signed by the Democratic members, said:
“Dangerous levels of toxic metals like arsenic, lead, cadmium, and mercury exist in baby foods at levels that exceed what experts and governing bodies say are permissible […], yet we know that in a lot of cases, we should not have anything more than single-digit parts per billion of any of these metals in any of our foods.”
Switch to Unprocessed Fruits and Vegetables
According to Michael Hansen, a senior staff scientist with Consumer Reports, toxic metals might be more common in baby foods because of the vitamins and minerals added to those foods during processing, he said. Rice, a common ingredient in baby foods, also tends to have high levels of arsenic. Rice is grown in water and arsenic from the soil dissolves when it comes in contact with water, he said.
Because babies’ brains are still developing, there is a lot of concern about how those metals could damage that development, Hansen said. By the time symptoms like behavioral problems show up, he said it can be challenging to trace them back to foods. Hansen said parents who are concerned should switch to unprocessed fruits and vegetables. The FDA also recommends feeding babies a variety of grain-based cereals, not just those made with rice.
Last August, the FDA finalized guidance for infant rice cereal, recommending it contain no more than 100 parts per billion of arsenic. The subcommittee’s report said Beech-Nut used some ingredients that tested as high as 913 parts per billion for arsenic. In comparison, Earth’s Best Organics used ingredients testing as high as 309 parts per billion for arsenic.
Exposure to Toxic Elements
The report found some instances where manufacturers tested ingredients but not final products, even though toxic metals levels might be higher in the finished products. It also found cases in which manufacturers set internal standards but still sold foods that exceeded them.
The subcommittee, which is led by Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, an Illinois Democrat, said it wants the FDA to set standards for the presence of heavy metals in baby foods. Manufacturers should be required to test finished products and publish the results, the subcommittee said in its report.
In a statement Thursday, the FDA said it takes exposure to toxic elements in the food supply very seriously. The agency said baby food makers had made progress in reducing arsenic in baby food since 2016 when it first proposed setting the 100 ppb guidance. The agency said
“We acknowledge that there is more work to be done, but the FDA reiterates its strong commitment to continue to reduce consumer exposure to toxic elements and other contaminants.”
Sensitivity to Neurotoxic Chemicals
Arsenic, lead, cadmium, and mercury are in the World Health Organization’s top 10 chemicals of concern for infants and children. As natural elements, they are in the soil in which crops are grown and can’t be avoided. However, some crop fields and regions contain more toxic levels than others, partly due to the overuse of metal-containing pesticides and ongoing industrial pollution. Dr. Leonardo Trasande, chief of environmental pediatrics at NYU Langone, said:
“There was a time where we used metals as the predominant pesticide for many years, assuming it was safe.”
All of these heavy metals have been linked to cancer, chronic disease, and neurotoxic effects. Still, it’s the devastating damage that can be done to a developing baby’s brain that makes baby food toxicity so critical. From the time of conception through the age of 2, babies have a too high sensitivity to neurotoxic chemicals, said Jane Houlihan, the national director of science and health for Healthy Babies Bright Futures, a coalition of advocates committed to reducing babies’ exposures to neurotoxic chemicals. She added:
“Their brain is forming rapidly, and so when they’re exposed to metals that can interrupt those natural processes, the impacts range from behavioral problems to aggression to IQ loss and all kinds of cognitive and behavioral deficits that can persist throughout life.”