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Dangerous amounts of lead, cadmium, mercury, and inorganic arsenic have been identified in several products from leading baby food manufacturers across the US. Courtesy photo
Dangerous amounts of lead, cadmium, mercury, and inorganic arsenic have been identified in several products from leading baby food manufacturers across the US. Photo by Monkey Business Images
Community CommentaryOpinion

Commentary: FDA, heavy metals and baby food

By Jonathan Sharp

In 2019, the non-profit organization Healthy Baby Bright Futures released a study on the contents of infant nutritional products. The results were alarming, noting that out of the samples they tested, only 5% registered as clean. The other 95% of the tested products contained significant traces of one or more toxic heavy metals.

These concerning figures were validated by a congressional report from the economic and consumer policy subcommittee in February 2021.

Dangerous amounts of lead, cadmium, mercury and inorganic arsenic were identified in several products from leading baby food manufacturers across the US. These heavy metals have no safe level of exposure and are known neurotoxins that lead to decreased IQ and cognitive disabilities.

Subcommittee’s Report Highlights Gruesome Industry Practices and Standards

The subcommittee’s investigation focused on seven major manufacturers, requesting internal data on testing policies and results.

Hain, Nurture, Beech-Nut, and Gerber complied with the congressional inquiry. Sprout, Walmart and Campbell refused to cooperate, raising suspicions that they might be concealing evidence of higher toxic metal concentrations in their products.

Their reluctance to share information isn’t surprising given the elevated levels of heavy metals found in products from the companies that made internal data available.

Mercury was five times above safety levels in both ingredients and finished products, cadmium was 69 times higher, arsenic exceeded safety standards 91-fold, and lead contents were a shocking 177 times greater.

The subpar testing practices and standards employed by manufacturers likewise raise concerns. Beech-Nut used additives with high arsenic counts, Hain only tested ingredients, Nurture knowingly sold products despite heavy metal test results, and most companies rarely, if ever, tested for mercury.

These harmful elements in baby food pose a significant toxic exposure risk for vulnerable infants.

Due to their higher nutrient intake and less developed filtering and immune systems, cadmium, lead, arsenic, and mercury accumulate in tissues and act as neurotoxins over time. Multiple studies have indicated a significant correlation between exposure to heavy metals and the development of autism spectrum disorders.

After the public disclosure of these facts, the response from the industry was seen as tentative at best. While Beech-Nut decided to take an indefinite leave from the market and recalled some of their contaminated products, Gerber was hesitant to do the same.

The lack of interest on the part of manufacturers to promptly address these issues attracted the attention of the FDA.

FDA’s Closer to Zero Plan Considered Inefficient and Slow to Act

Taking note of the subcommittee’s unsettling findings, the Food and Drug Administration initiated its Closer to Zero action plan in April 2021. The FDA’s four-stage strategy seeks to gradually mitigate heavy metal contents in baby food products, setting actionable plans for 2024 or even longer.

While the plan’s intentions and goals are laudable, it has also been criticized for its lack of urgency and redundant steps. More precisely, the first two stages concerning data evaluation and drafting action levels are unnecessary given the available data from reputable sources.

The final two stages focusing on the practicality and implementation of effective measures should be prioritized. Doing so would ensure faster performance, setting interim action levels for heavy metals that manufacturers must abide by sooner than 2024.

In September 2021, the subcommittee released an updated follow-up to their initial report. Regarding the FDA’s plan, the report’s authors note the Agency should accelerate the process by setting definitive heavy metal standards sooner and mandating manufacturers to test their final products.

The FDA has imposed only one limit targeting heavy metals in baby food, namely for arsenic in infant rice cereal at a contested 100 ppb (parts per billion). This barely regulates one harmful element out of four in a narrow subsection of the baby food market.

The lack of regulation allows manufacturers to skip on relatively inexpensive testing that would ensure the safety of their products, seemingly placing profits before ethics.

The Baby Food Safety Act Of 2021 Aims to Bring an End to This Crisis

Concurrently, the FDA would monitor manufacturers’ compliance with the new standards and periodically review their test results to gradually reduce toxic metal levels. Manufacturers would have to attest to their compliance through biannual reports. The CDC would carry out an awareness campaign highlighting the risks of harmful elements in infant nutrition products.

The authorities’ passivity towards the pending legislation prompted a strong reaction from a coalition of 24 Attorneys General. Headed by Letitia James, the coalition petitioned the FDA in October 2021 to expeditiously issue guidance for manufacturers and implement interim action levels by April 2022.

These measures have not yet been imposed.

Product Safety Lies with The Manufacturers, Too

Until effective measures are enforced, the baby food manufacturers’ responsibility is to ensure that their products are safe and don’t pose a toxic exposure risk to their intended consumers.

While it’s true that toxic heavy metals occur naturally in the environment, there are several practices that manufacturers can employ to reduce their presence in finished products.

Ingredients should be sourced from land with low heavy metal concentrations, and natural additives should be used in cultivation to limit the uptake of harmful substances. Manufacturers should also opt for crops less prone to heavy metal absorption.

Companies should improve their hiring standards to retain dependable professionals. Maintaining facilities clean should be a priority and requires the right staff to accomplish such a diligent task. Routinely testing product quality ensures that heavy metals are kept at permissible levels, and voluntary recalls of unsafe products should be issued when there’s proof of contamination. Lastly, manufacturers should use clear labels that precisely indicate a product’s contents.

Jonathan Sharp is CFO at Environmental Litigation Group, PC, in Alabama.