The FDA’s Failure to Regulate Heavy Metals in Baby Food is Causing a Major Health Crisis
Every year, baby food companies in America make nearly $7 billion, and the baby food industry has a market value of roughly $67 billion. Consequently, it is unsurprising that many of these manufacturers put financial profit over the health and wellbeing of children. In 2019, a study led by Healthy Babies Bright Futures, a non-profit organization, revealed that a whopping 95% of infant and toddler food on store shelves contains at least one heavy metal, which can seriously endanger the health of babies.
While they naturally occur in soil and water, cadmium, arsenic, lead, and mercury are extremely dangerous for children’s health, as once inside their bodies, they act as neurotoxins. Therefore, heavy metal ingestion from baby food can eventually lead to neurological disorders and problems such as autism, lower intelligence, cognitive damage, and learning disabilities. Children are more susceptible to the negative impact of heavy metals on their health because they have a higher uptake rate by the gastrointestinal tract and undeveloped detoxification systems.
Shortly after the results of the previous study were made public, the Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy decided to conduct a more comprehensive and detailed investigation. Accordingly, seven major baby food companies were asked to share their internal practices concerning heavy metal testing. Out of these seven manufacturers, only four agreed to help the investigation, whereas three outright refused to collaborate. The baby food companies that allowed the investigators to examine their internal policies are Beech-Nut Nutrition Company, Gerber, Hain Celestial Group, and Nurture.
What came to light during the investigation?
Some of the findings were appalling. Before looking at the results of the congressional report, keep in mind that the safe limit for each of the four heavy metals of concern is – 10 ppb for arsenic, 5 ppb for cadmium, 5 ppb for lead, and 2 ppb for mercury. This will help us fully understand the severity of the situation and how far baby food companies are willing to go to allow toxic agents in products made for vulnerable children.
As far as lead is concerned, Beech-Nut was found to use ingredients with over 885 ppb lead, and Hain Celestial Group included some ingredients in baby food testing up to 200 ppb lead. Over 25% of the baby food made by Nurture examined before sale contained more than 100 ppb arsenic, whereas Hain Celestial allowed ingredients with 300 ppb arsenic in infant and toddler food products. Cadmium was found in concentrations exceeding 340 ppb in the baby food of Beech-Nut, and in the baby food of Hain Celestial Group, over 260 ppb cadmium was present. Alarmingly, most companies admitted to skipping testing for mercury or testing for it very rarely.
The results of the report were available to the general public on February 4, 2021. Since then, parents of infants and toddlers have expressed their understandable outrage concerning the number of heavy metals in the food they feed their children. However, the Food and Drug Administration is partially responsible for this horrific situation, as the agency does not regulate heavy metals in baby food, except arsenic. Arsenic is regulated only in infant rice cereal, and the maximum limit is 100 ppb, which is considered very high by most health agencies.
The ‘Closer to Zero’ plan, dangerously slow to regulate heavy metals in baby food
Because of the report’s results, the FDA came up with the “Closer to Zero” plan, whose purpose is to identify actions the agency will take to minimize exposure to toxic metals from baby food. Nevertheless, this strategy entails unnecessary steps and would be completed only in the spring of 2024 or even later. Naturally, many find it scandalous, as parents of infants and toddlers need a source of clean, non-toxic baby food as soon as possible. The first step of the Closer to Zero plan is evaluating the scientific basis for action levels, which is redundant since we already know the maximum safe limit for each of the four problematic heavy metals from medical studies and health agencies.
Proposing action levels is the next step the FDA is planning to implement, another dispensable action, as we already know the interim reference levels for cadmium, arsenic, lead, and mercury. Only the third step of the Closer to Zero plan includes something worthwhile. In addition to consulting with stakeholders on the proposed action levels, it also involves assessing the achievability and feasibility of safe limits. This is paramount, as the FDA should ensure that all baby food manufacturers have the possibility of using ingredients with a concentration of heavy metals as low as possible and that they can implement other practical measures to maintain the levels of these neurotoxins to a minimum all the time.
Finally, the last step of the FDA’s plan is finalizing action levels, which is estimated to be enforced in April of 2024 or later. It entails using the information from stakeholders, scientific research, and routine data monitoring to make any necessary adjustments and finalize action levels. Once again, this can be achieved from the start, as there are plentiful data from scientific and medical studies and reputable health agencies already regulating heavy metals in baby food and other consumer products. Therefore, the Closer to Zero plan of the agency could be completed much earlier than estimated, which would protect children from heavy metal exposure sooner.
Attorneys general petition the FDA to take faster and more aggressive measures
In October of last year, the FDA was petitioned by a coalition of 24 attorneys general, urging the agency to take more aggressive measures concerning the acute issue of heavy metals in baby food. Although they found the Closer to Zero plan a laudable action, they still criticized the agency for how slow and lengthy the strategy would be. New York Attorney General Letitia James is the coalition leader whose petition responds to the increasing alarm regarding the health hazards posed by toxins in baby food and the failure of baby food companies to reduce these hazards immediately.
This petition was filed after a letter was sent by the leading attorney general in February 2021 to the FDA, urging the agency to take prompt regulatory action to protect children from heavy metals lurking in baby food. “Every day and across the country, baby food companies are selling products containing dangerous levels of lead and other toxic metals, and urgent action is needed to stop it. There are common-sense, science-based actions that can drive down the levels of heavy metals in baby foods, which is why we are calling on the FDA to take these actions as soon as possible,” said Attorney General James.
The Baby Food Safety Act of 2021, a glimmer of hope for parents of infants and toddlers
Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-IL) introduced a bill known as the Baby Food Safety Act of 2021 on March 26, 2021, with the primary goal of establishing safe limits for arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury in baby food once and for all. Furthermore, the bill would also have the FDA periodically review and, if necessary, lower the concentrations of toxic metals even more. The agency could also set limits on other harmful agents following the health and dietary data review.
As for baby food companies, facilities that handle it would have to have specific controls and plans to make sure their products comply with the limits on heavy metals. The facilities would also need to make available certain information to the public, including tests for toxic elements in their food. Seven months after the release of the congressional report, the initiator of the bill had his subcommittee issue a follow-up, alleging that the industry “consistently cuts corners and puts profit over the health of babies and children.”
Lastly, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would have to carry out public awareness campaigns about the risks of toxic exposure from infant and toddler food. If the Baby Food Safety Act of 2021 enters law, parents would no longer have to worry about the risk of their children ingesting hazardous metals that could lead to the development of lifelong, debilitating neurological conditions. The bill would also lower the rate of corruption among baby food manufacturers and force companies to test their ingredients and finished products for heavy metals.
About the author
Having been part of the legal team for more than two decades, Jonathan Sharp is the Chief Financial Officer at Environmental Litigation Group, PC. The law firm specializes in toxic exposure in Birmingham, Alabama. Among the main responsibilities of Jonathan Sharp are the management of firm assets, the collection and distribution of the funds, case evaluation, financial analysis, and client relations.