The FDA’s Loose Plan To Regulate Heavy Metals Continues To Allow Toxic Baby Food On Shelves

By Jonathan Sharp

Ever since the congressional report that found heavy metals lurking in commercial baby food was made public in the winter of 2021, parents have been outraged, and for a good reason. Some of the infant and toddler food tested had a concentration of heavy metals exceeding the safe limit by hundreds of times, which increases children’s risk of developing lifelong, debilitating neurological disorders and problems such as autism, lower IQ, cognitive damage, and learning disabilities.

While heavy metals such as arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury are naturally present in soil and water and can easily make their way into crops, it is the responsibility of baby food manufacturers to ensure that the products they put on the market are safe for consumption. However, numerous companies act unethically and place financial profit over children’s health by skipping the essential step of testing their ingredients and finished products for toxic metals.

To address this acute issue, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) came up with the Closer To Zero plan, which reduces exposure to heavy metals and other toxic elements from infant and toddler food to as low as possible. Nevertheless, the agency’s strategy has been criticized by many, including a coalition of 24 Attorneys General, for being too lengthy and for failing to expedite its timelines. Indeed, the Closer To Zero plan is quite problematic, as, for once, it would officially set limits for arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury only in 2024 or even later.

The Congressional Reports’ Distressing And Unexpected Findings

The investigation findings led by the Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy are unsettling. Seven major baby food companies were asked to participate by sharing with the subcommittee their internal testing policies, documentation regarding what they did with the ingredients and finished products that had concentrations of heavy metals that were too high, and test results for ingredients and finished products. These baby food companies are Beech-Nut Nutrition Company, Gerber, Hain Celestial Group, Nurture, Sprout Organic Foods, Walmart, and Campbell. Nonetheless, the latter three outright refused to collaborate with the investigators.

Before revealing some of the appalling findings of the congressional report, it is crucial to be aware of what the safe limits for the four heavy metals of concern are. Accordingly, for arsenic, the safe limit is 10 ppb (parts per billion), for cadmium 5 ppb, for lead 5 ppb, and mercury 2 ppb. With these maximum allowable limits in mind, let us look at what the subcommittee found. Perhaps one of the most shocking discoveries is that Beech-Nut used ingredients with over 900 ppb arsenic. Furthermore, Hain also allowed ingredients containing 309 ppb arsenic to go into the manufacturing of baby food.

As for cadmium, Beech-Nut was found to use ingredients with as much as 344 ppb, whereas some of Gerber’s carrots had roughly 87 ppb cadmium. Lead, one of the most powerful and dangerous heavy metals, was lurking in the ingredients Nurture used in a whopping concentration of 641 ppb, while Beech-Nut used ingredients with over 880 ppb lead. Lastly, most companies admitted to testing for mercury very rarely, if at all. As we can see, these results eclipse the safe limits for heavy metals, including results up to 91 times the arsenic limit, up to 177 times the lead limit, and up to 69 times the cadmium limit.

The FDA’s Closer To Zero Plan: Another Failed Inaction To Set Standards For Baby Food

Now, there are no safe limits set by the FDA for heavy metals in baby food, except for arsenic. Even so, the safe limitation applies only to infant rice cereal and is 100 ppb, which is ten times over the safe limit recommended by most health agencies. However, in response to the pressure of authorities and parents, the FDA came up with the Closer To Zero plan in April of last year, which is meant to minimize the concentration of the four heavy metals of concern in baby food. The strategy has four steps, and, in addition to being unnecessarily lengthy, it also has multiple other shortcomings.

The first two steps of the Closer To Zero plan, “evaluate the scientific basis for action levels” and “propose action levels,” are redundant since the safe limit for each toxic metal is well known from reputable medical studies and reliable information from health agencies worldwide. In fact, only the third step entails a practical action — assessing the “achievability and feasibility of action levels” — as the FDA must ensure that all baby food companies have the means to keep the levels of heavy metals in their products below the maximum limit.

Practices such as sourcing rice from crops grown on soil with a low concentration of arsenic, growing crops with natural soil additives to lower heavy metal uptake, and using strains of food that are less likely to absorb toxic metals are bound to reduce the content of heavy metals in baby food significantly. Companies that manufacture infant and toddler food can easily switch to these practices with the assistance of the FDA and other agencies that can provide support in this respect. Therefore, the Closer To Zero plan would be considerably more effective if the agency immediately set interim reference levels and subsequently aided baby food companies with implementing these practices.

The FDA’s milestones address the risk of one heavy metal at a time, starting with draft action levels for lead by April 2022, arsenic by April 2024, and cadmium and mercury at a later, unspecified date. In addition to being too slow, involving unnecessary steps, and not entailing more aggressive timelines, the Closer

To Zero plan also fails to consider the cumulative impact of heavy metals on the neurodevelopment of children when setting limits, to move up deadlines for draft action levels for arsenic and cadmium, and to be transparent by posting testing data rapidly. Nevertheless, a beacon of hope for parents who need safe, non-toxic food for their children as soon as possible is the Baby Food Safety Act of 2021.

The Baby Food Safety Act Could Solve Current Health Crisis

On March 26, 2021, Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi introduced the Baby Food Safety Act bill, whose primary purpose is to set maximum limits for heavy metals in baby food immediately. Moreover, the bill would involve the FDA to a greater extent by making the agency periodically review and, if necessary, lower the levels of heavy metals in baby food even more.

Facilities that handle infant and toddler food in any way would also have to have special plans to ensure that their products comply with the safe limits on toxic metals set by the bill if the Baby Food Safety Act of 2021 becomes law. Lastly, the bill would make it mandatory for the Centers for Disease Control to carry out awareness campaigns highlighting the risks of heavy metals in baby food.

If the Baby Food Safety Act of 2021 becomes effective, parents will no longer have to worry about the content of heavy metals in their children’s food, which is supposed to nourish them and help them generally develop at a healthy pace. Within a short time, all baby food companies would adhere to ethical practices and be transparent about the manufacturing process and the heavy metal testing they conduct on ingredients and finished products.

Practical Measures Baby Food Companies Should Take To Reduce Heavy Metal Contamination

In addition to implementing certain practices to reduce the content of heavy metals in products, companies can take other preventive measures to ensure their business remains ethical. Hiring trustworthy people is perhaps the most crucial step to make sure no foul play will occur. Furthermore, it would be best to source ingredients from principled suppliers, such as local farmers, since they typically use transparent business practices.

Moreover, another measure to be taken is periodically testing products for heavy metals to know for sure that the baby food allowed on the market does not contain dangerous concentrations of toxic metals. The labels on infant and toddler food should also be honest and transparent, even if sourced ingredients are not highly qualitative; this will gain the consumer’s trust. Finally, if a high concentration of heavy metals is detected in one or multiple lots, they should be recalled immediately to avoid backlash and lawsuits for allowing dangerous baby foods to remain on the shelves.

After reviewing what the Closer To Zero plan and the Baby Food Safety Act of 2021 entail, there is no doubt that the latter would benefit infants and toddlers substantially more, as it would impose safe limits for arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury right away and parents would no longer be at a loss about what to feed their babies. The bill is currently in the Senate and, hopefully, we will witness it becoming law as soon as possible, as the parents of very young children need a source of clean, nourishing food for their little ones that is free of toxic metals.

Jonathan Sharp is Chief Financial Officer at Environmental Litigation Group, PC, The law firm, which is headquartered in Birmingham, Alabama, specializes in toxic exposure. The primary responsibilities of Jonathan Sharp include client relations, financial analysis, the collection and distribution of the funds, management of firm assets, and case evaluation.

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