On February 4, 2021, a congressional report from the Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy brought to light several concerning facts regarding the practices and standards of baby food manufacturers and their products. Specifically, the report notes that infant nutritional products contain high amounts of toxic heavy metals such as cadmium, arsenic, lead, and mercury.
Several U.S. manufacturers were asked to cooperate with the ongoing investigation and disclose information on their products’ heavy metal contents and testing standards. Out of seven targeted companies, three refused to cooperate with the Subcommittee’s investigative efforts. This lack of compliance from significant industry players sparked further suspicions and prompted the FDA to develop a strategic plan to eliminate toxic heavy metal contaminants in baby food. Even though the strategy is considered a step forward, experts believe that, despite its best intentions, the plan’s timeline is ineffectually long and should be amended to reflect the need for urgency.
Congressional Report Uncovers Outrageous Amounts of Toxic Heavy Metals in Baby Food
The companies subject to the Subcommittee’s investigation include notable industry leaders including Hain, Nurture, Beech-Nut, and Gerber which complied with requests for cooperation and provided internal documents. Conversely, Campbell, Sprout Food Organics, and Walmart denied access to such information, sparking suspicion that they might intentionally conceal incriminating data.
These suspicions were not unfounded, considering the report’s shocking results. Across multiple products from the companies that provided information, heavy metal contaminants exceeded acceptable safety levels set for other consumables. Lead concentrations were 177 times higher, arsenic contents were 91 times greater, cadmium exceeded safety limits by a factor of 69, and mercury levels were 5 times above standards. These figures apply to both ingredients and finished products.
Besides the high amounts of toxic contaminants, the report likewise illustrated questionable practices and testing standards employed by manufacturers. Hain tended to test only ingredients, Beech-Nut regularly used high-arsenic additives to ensure crumb softness, Nurture sold finished products containing lead levels as high as 641 ppb, and Gerber rarely tested the mercury contents of its baby food.
These findings elicited varied reactions from the companies involved in the report. While Beech-Nut issued a voluntary recall of its contaminated products and took a tentative step back from the baby foods market, Gerber was hesitant to take similar measures. The baby food industry’s limited action following the public disclosure of these figures left an impression of lukewarm interest that raises concerns considering the implications of exposure to heavy metals at an early age.
The cadmium, mercury, lead, and arsenic found in baby foods accumulate in infants’ bodies, leading to neurotoxicity that affects them over time. Children under 36 months are especially susceptible to the adverse effects of heavy metal exposure since they absorb four times more substances than adults. Notably, their immune and detoxifying systems are still underdeveloped, increasing their vulnerability. An ample body of research indicates that exposure to these harmful elements is strongly associated with IQ decreases, cognitive impairment, and the development of neurological conditions such as ADHD and autism.
The FDA’s Measures Fall Short of Expectations
Taking note of the congressional report’s information, the Food and Drug Administration developed its Closer to Zero Plan to address the presence of heavy metals in infant nutrition products. The four-stage plan aims to gradually reduce harmful substance levels in baby food by 2024, potentially taking longer in the case of certain elements.
This approach has been scrutinized for its ineffectually long timeline burdened by redundancies. The available data and research on the safe limits of heavy metals from reliable sources render the first two stages unnecessary. The last two stages that target the feasibility and implementation of official measures are strongly encouraged, meaning that the entire strategy can be reduced to only these steps. This would save valuable time setting definite standards that industry players would have to adhere to strictly.
A follow-up report from the Subcommittee in September 2021 commends the FDA’s efforts yet notes the need for expediency in setting actionable limits and mandating finished product testing. Because manufacturers knowingly commercialized unsafe products with no warnings, thus putting children’s health at risk, the report’s authors note that the current proposed timeline is too slow.
Even though they hold a privileged position in the public’s trust, baby food manufacturers face exceedingly limited regulation regarding their products’ heavy metal contents. Given this lack of regulative standards, manufacturers prevent additional costs to their process by avoiding extensive testing, apparently placing profits ahead of safety.
The Baby Food Safety Act of 2021 Could Help End the Contamination Crisis
In response to the congressional study’s results, Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi submitted The Baby Food Safety Act of 2021 for consideration. The proposed bill would immediately set mandatory limits for heavy metals in baby food and require extensive involvement from manufacturers and the FDA. Specifically, it would set interim levels for arsenic at 10 ppb, cadmium and lead at 5 ppb, and mercury at 2ppb. The FDA would conduct periodic evaluations to keep standards updated and mitigate heavy metal levels even further. Additionally, production facilities would have to implement controls and measures that attest to their compliance with the new standards, ensuring the safety of infant nutrition products.
Even though the bill was submitted to the Senate in March 2021, it’s currently still pending. The authorities’ slow response to this situation prompted action from a coalition of 24 Attorneys General. The coalition led by NY attorney general Letitia James submitted a petition reflecting the bill’s objectives and urging the FDA to implement actionable measures no later than 2022.
Baby Food Manufacturers Are Responsible for Their Products’ Safety
Heavy metals are naturally occurring elements absorbed from the water and soil in the growing process. Certain crops such as rice are more absorbent and hold arsenic concentrations up to 20 times higher than other crops. Therefore, the only FDA limit for heavy metals applies to infant rice cereal, setting the cap for arsenic at a still dangerous 100 ppb.
Even if it’s difficult to eliminate heavy metals and trace amounts that can still be present in finished products, it’s ultimately the manufacturers’ responsibility to ensure that their baby food is safe for infant consumption. Companies can employ effective practices to reduce toxic metal contents in their ingredients and final products:
- Sourcing ingredients from land with reduced arsenic concentrations
- Cultivating crops using natural additives, thus lowering heavy metal absorption
- Selecting strains that are less prone to heavy metal uptake
- Improve irrigation and water sources
Other essential measures intended to prevent unethical conduct and heavy metal contamination include:
- Improved hiring standards that attract and retain reliable professionals
- Sourcing ingredients from local suppliers with transparent, ethical practices
- Maintaining facilities always sanitized by employing the right staff for this strenuous job
- Periodic product testing to ensure that heavy metal contents are maintained at low levels
- Clear labels and precise information
- Voluntary product recalls if testing proves the presence of increased amounts of one or more heavy metals.