The FDA’s Plan to Reduce Heavy Metals in Baby Food Is Problematic and Does Not Solve National Health Crisis

Since the reveal of the congressional report exposing four of the most popular baby food companies for allowing dangerous concentrations of toxic metals in their products in the winter of last year, parents have been outraged, and for a good reason.

The manufacturers that agreed to participate in the investigation, which Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi led, were found using ingredients exceeding the safe limit of arsenic by 91 times, the safe limit of cadmium by 69 times, and the safe limit of lead by 177 times. Furthermore, all the companies admitted to rarely, if ever, testing for mercury in their baby food, which is intended for children under 36 months.

Initially, the investigators asked seven baby food manufacturers to partake in the investigation, but three outright refused to share their internal practices and heavy metals test results. The companies that decided to keep their policies to themselves were Campbell, Sprout Organic Foods, and Walmart.

One of the baby food manufacturers that collaborated with the investigators was Gerber, which has a rich history, as it was founded in 1927. The baby food of Gerber was found to contain over 90 ppb arsenic when the safe limit is 10 ppb, 48 ppb lead when the maximum limit is 5 ppb, and 87 ppb cadmium when the safe limit is 5 ppb.

However, this is not the first time Gerber has acted negligently, as, in 1986, the company was found guilty of allowing glass fragments in baby food. Consumers from 16 states reported glass contamination in the products of Gerber. Instead of conducting a thorough investigation, the FDA said that it had no basis for a recall and that the incidents were isolated. When the officials of Maryland decided to ban Gerber baby food until the issue was solved, the company hit Gov. Harry Hughes with a $150 million lawsuit. One day, the company sued the officials after the state ordered stores to remove jars of Gerber strained peaches from their shelves.

The Issue of Heavy Metal Contamination in Baby Food Is Highly Problematic and Dangerous

The content of toxic metals found in Gerber baby food is lower than that present in the products of the other companies. For instance, Hain Celestial Group used ingredients containing over 300 ppb arsenic in baby food, whereas Beech-Nut allowed products with more than 900 ppb arsenic to go on the market.

As for lead, one of the most dangerous heavy metals, Beech-Nut, was found using ingredients with as much as 886 ppb lead, while Hain Celestial Group manufactured baby food with over 350 ppb lead. Lastly, Beech-Nut used ingredients containing more than 340 ppb cadmium, and Hain Celestial Group made baby food with up to 260 ppb cadmium.

The Closer to Zero Plan, a Lengthy and Ineffective Strategy to Minimize the Content of Toxic Metals in Baby Food

Shortly after the Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy made public the congressional report, the FDA thought out a strategy to tackle the problem of heavy metals in baby food. Nevertheless, the strategy of the agency – known as the Closer to Zero plan – has been heavily criticized not only by parents but also by authorities. In October of 2021, a coalition of 24 Attorneys General petitioned the FDA and urged the agency to take more aggressive measures regarding the issue of toxic metals in infant and toddler food. The attorneys believe that the FDA should immediately set interim action levels for arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury in baby food, as children need clean, non-toxic food now, not in several years, as the Closer to Zero plan entails.

The Closer to Zero plan implies four steps, out of which the first two are unnecessary, as they concern evaluating the scientific basis for action levels and proposing action levels. This is redundant, as we already know from reliable and reputable sources, such as medical specialists and health agencies, what the safe limits for the four toxic metals of concern are. Consequently, to speed up setting official interim action levels, the FDA should go straight to the third step, which entails necessary action – assessing the achievability and feasibility of the limits. This is paramount, as the agency must make sure that all the baby food manufacturers in the country undergo comprehensive instruction on keeping the content of toxic metals in their products under the maximum limits.

Moreover, the FDA must ensure all the baby food companies have access to the means necessary to reduce the content of toxic metals in baby food, such as sourcing rice from crops grown on soil with a reduced concentration of arsenic, growing crops with natural soil additives to lower heavy metal uptake, and using food strains that are unlikely to absorb toxic metals. Lastly, in addition to the fact that the entire Closer to Zero plan of the FDA would come to fruition in 2024 or even later, this strategy has other shortcomings as well, such as not considering the cumulative impact of toxic metals on the neurodevelopment of children, not moving up deadlines for draft action levels for arsenic and cadmium, and not being transparent by updating testing data rapidly on their website.

A Glimpse of Hope Is the Baby Food Safety Act of 2021

It is more likely that the Baby Food Safety Act of 2021 will become effective until the FDA carries out its Closer to Zero plan. Thought out by Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi, the bill would immediately set limits for arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury in baby food. Additionally, it would also oblige the FDA to become more involved in monitoring how baby food companies act by periodically reviewing their practices and heavy metals test results. The agency would also have the authority to lower the limits for the four toxic metals even more if necessary.

The Baby Food Safety Act of 2021 would make it mandatory for facilities that handle baby food to have strict and clear plans to ensure their products comply with the safe limits on toxic metals. Lastly, the Centers for Disease Control would have to regularly carry out awareness campaigns to highlight the health risks of heavy metals in baby food, encouraging companies to keep acting ethically and comply with the safety measures when manufacturing their products. The Baby Food Safety Act of 2021 was referred to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, which is the last action taken regarding it.

If the Baby Food Safety Act of 2021 becomes law, parents of infants and toddlers would no longer have to worry about toxins in the food they feed their children that can lead to the development of autism and other neurologic disorders. Baby food companies would be permanently monitored so that the level of heavy metals in their finished products will always be below the maximum limit, protecting children’s health across the country. The Baby Food Safety Act of 2021 would leave baby food companies that had been used to cutting corners and placing financial profit over the wellbeing of children with no other choice but to act ethically.