What’s Being Done to Regulate Toxic Metals in Baby Food?

John Egan - The Upside Blog

by | Updated: April 8th, 2021 | Read time: 4 minutes

Addressing a hot-button issue among American parents, the nonprofit Baby Food Council is developing a certification program aimed at reducing the presence of toxic heavy metals in baby food. Meanwhile, federal lawmakers and regulators are stepping up pressure on manufacturers regarding toxic metals in baby food.

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According to FoodChain ID, a company that specializes in food safety and testing, the Baby Food Council’s certification program — along with a seal that will appear on baby food labels — is set to launch in 2022. The program focuses on “identifying the best practices that can further minimize heavy metals in vegetables and fruits commonly used in baby foods.”

FoodChain ID will administer the certification program in conjunction with members of the Baby Food Council, which was founded in 2019:

  • Baby food makers Beech-Nut, Earth’s Best, Gerber and Happy Family Organics (part of Danon).
  • Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
  • Two nonprofits, the Environmental Defense Fund and Health Babies Bright Futures.

The council’s technical advisers are the American Academy of Pediatrics, U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets.

Concerns about toxic metals in baby food

The Baby Food Council’s work comes amid heightened scrutiny of toxic metals in baby food.

In February 2021, the U.S. House Oversight Committee’s Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy released a report indicating that commercial baby foods are tainted with significant levels of toxic heavy metals, including arsenic, lead, cadmium and mercury. The report recommended that the FDA require baby food manufacturers to test finished products for toxic heavy metals, not just ingredients in the products, and to include information about toxic heavy metals on baby food labels.

Toxic heavy metals endanger the neurological development and long-term brain function of infants, the report says. “Exposure to toxic heavy metals causes permanent decreases in IQ, diminished future economic productivity, and increased risk of future criminal and antisocial behavior in children,” according to the report.

The findings of the congressional report mirror those of a study issued in 2019 by Healthy Babies Health Futures. The study found heavy metals in 95% of the 168 baby foods that were tested; 87% of the foods contained at least two heavy metals.

“This compelling new evidence lays bare FDA’s clear failure to protect babies from the toxic heavy metals in their food,” Charlotte Brody, national director of Healthy Babies Bright Futures, says in a news release about the congressional report. “While FDA studies the problem and companies set lax internal standards, millions of babies are exposed to these contaminants every day. It is time to step up and finally take clear action.”

Plans to reduce toxic metals in baby food

Shortly after the congressional report came out, the FDA said it would create a plan to reduce the presence of toxic metals in baby foods “to levels as low as is reasonably achievable.”

“It’s important to understand that toxic elements are present in the environment, including in our air, water and soil, and therefore are unavoidable in the general food supply. This is why another part of our plan is to ramp up availability of consumer information and resources that underscore how the key to a healthy diet including for infants and young children is variety,” the FDA says in a March 2021 news release.

Healthy Babies Healthy Futures applauded the FDA’s work on decreasing the presence of toxic metals in baby food, admonishing the federal agency to do more, not less, on this front in coming years. Meanwhile, the Environmental Defense Fund complained the FDA’s steps “fell short.”

Less than weeks after the FDA’s statement, federal lawmakers introduced the Baby Food Safety Act of 2021. The proposal would strictly reduce the amount of toxic heavy metals allowed in baby food and would educate parents about the risks of these heavy metals.

“For too long, [the] industry has been allowed to self-regulate baby food safety, and the results have been appalling and extremely harmful to our kids,” U.S. Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, an Illinois Democrat who chairs the Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy, says in a news release. “We will not stand for that any longer.”

Tom Neltner, chemicals policy director at the Environmental Defense Fund, says the Baby Food Safety Act would establish a framework to drive down levels of arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury in baby food. The act, he says, would essentially treat toxic heavy metals like disease-causing pathogens such as bacteria and viruses.

“Government actions to protect babies from the toxic heavy metals in their food are long overdue,” says Brody, the Healthy Babies Bright Futures leader. “The Baby Food Safety Act is much more than a baby step to protect the millions of infants and toddlers that are exposed to these contaminants every day.”

Reactions from baby food brands

In a March 2021 statement, Gerber says it is reviewing the Baby Food Act and welcomes the opportunity work with federal officials on making the food supply safer for children. The company says it strives to reduce the level of heavy metals in baby food by:

  • Selecting locations where crops are grown based on soil and water conditions.
  • Testing ingredients before they’re combined to make food.
  • Regularly testing finished products to ensure they meet safety and quality standards.

“We know media headlines can be concerning. We want parents to rest assured that all our foods, including rice cereals, meet the requirements of the FDA and our own strict standards for safety and quality,” Gerber says. “If any foods do not pass our quality and safety checks, we do not sell them.”