WASHNGTON – The Environmental Working Group today urged the Food and Drug Administration to quickly follow through on its plan to set mandatory limits on levels of toxic heavy metals in baby food.
The FDA today pledged to propose draft limits for some toxic metals but did not say when final limits would be set for some metals or when companies would have to meet these limits.
“It’s good that the FDA is finally proposing to propose limits on metals in baby food,” said Scott Faber, EWG’s senior vice president for government affairs. “Setting draft levels will send a powerful signal to the food industry to do better. But proposing to propose is not the same as setting mandatory standards that baby food companies must meet. Parents should not have to wait – and Congress should not wait, but instead set interim levels in the law that companies must meet right away.”
Under the proposal, the FDA would set draft levels for lead this year, draft levels for arsenic between 2022 and 2024, and draft levels for cadmium and mercury in 2024 or later. Final levels for lead would be set between 2022 and 2024, and final action levels for arsenic would not be set until 2024 or later.
By contrast, Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) and Reps. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.) and Tony Cárdenas (D-Calif.) have introduced legislation, the Baby Food Safety Act of 2021, that would set tough interim limits for toxic metals in baby food within one year.
The FDA and the World Health Organization say even low levels of exposure to heavy metals can cause serious and often irreversible damage to babies’ brains.
Several brands of widely sold baby foods were recently found to be tainted with dangerous levels of toxic heavy metals, including arsenic, lead, cadmium and mercury, according to an investigation by a House subcommittee.
The investigation, led by Krishnamoorthi, chair of the House Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy of the Committee on Oversight and Reform, examined internal test results and documents from four baby food brands, and found that all four were tainted with heavy metals.
Three companies refused to cooperate with the investigation, and the subcommittee said it has “grave concerns” that their refusal might hide “even higher levels of toxic heavy metals in their baby food products than their competitors’ products.”
“This is what happens when you let the food and chemical companies, not the FDA, decide whether our food is safe to eat,” Faber said. “For too long, the FDA has allowed food and chemical companies to exploit loopholes to taint our food with ‘forever chemicals,’ jet fuel and toxic metals like lead and arsenic. Today’s announcement is a step – but only a baby step – in the right direction.”
One brand contained as much as 180 parts per billion, or ppb, of inorganic arsenic, with that brand’s baby food sold in stores typically containing 60 ppb of inorganic arsenic. Its baby food products also tested as high as 641 ppb of lead. Test results of baby foods and their ingredients include results up to 91 times the arsenic level, and up to 177 times the lead level, set by the FDA for drinking water, according to the committee’s report.
“When it comes to exposure to heavy metals, companies that make products for babies should abide by the strictest standards for health,” said Nneka Leiba, vice president of Healthy Living Science at EWG. “Babies are especially vulnerable to the effects of such toxic substances. In lieu of regulation governing the levels of heavy metals in baby foods, manufacturers must be transparent about their standards and testing. At the very least, manufacturers have absolutely no excuse for not abiding by their own safety standards.”
The FDA has finalized only one metal standard for one narrow category of baby food, setting a standard for inorganic arsenic in infant rice cereal that is far too high to protect against the neurological effects on children.
Parents should avoid baby foods that contain ingredients testing high in toxic heavy metals, such as rice products. EWG recommends that people limit the amount of rice they eat and find alternatives to rice-based processed foods.
The Environmental Working Group is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization that empowers people to live healthier lives in a healthier environment. Through research, advocacy and unique education tools, EWG drives consumer choice and civic action.