Toxic metals arsenic, lead, cadmium, and mercury were all present at levels beyond what the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers safe for other products. Yet infants are particularly susceptible to these toxins, which can impair their neurological development and have lifelong impacts on their ability to earn a living and avoid criminal behavior.
“No level of exposure to these metals has been shown to be safe in vulnerable infants,” Linda McCauley, dean of the Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing at Emory University, told The New York Times.
The report was published Thursday by the House Oversight Committee’s subcommittee on economic and consumer policy. It was prompted by a 2019 report from Healthy Babies Bright Futures, which found that heavy metals were present in 95 percent of commercially available baby foods.
“What they did was take food off store shelves and test it. We said we should go straight to the companies and ask for their materials,” subcommittee Chair Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.) told The Washington Post.
The subcommittee requested internal testing data from Nurture, Beech-Nut, Hain, Gerber, Campbell, Walmart and Sprout Foods. The first four companies agreed to the request, while Campbell, Walmart and Sprout did not.
Arsenic, lead, and cadmium were found in the products of all the responding companies, while mercury was found in products from Nurture, the only company that tested for it.
The impacted products were:
- Nurture (HappyBABY), which sold products with as much as 180 parts per billion (ppb) arsenic, 641 ppb lead, more than five ppb cadmium and as much as 10 ppb mercury.
- Hain (Earth’s Best Organic), which sold products with as much as 129 ppb arsenic and used ingredients with as much as 309 ppb arsenic. It also used ingredients containing as much as 352 ppb lead and 260 ppb cadmium.
- Beech-Nut, which used ingredients that included as much as 913.4 ppb arsenic, 886.9 ppb lead and 344.55 ppb cadmium.
- Gerber, which used rice flour containing more than 90 ppb arsenic, ingredients with as much as 48 ppb lead and carrots with as much as 87 ppb cadmium.
The FDA has currently only set one legal limit for toxic metals in baby food, according to The New York Times. It requires that rice cereal not have more than 100 ppb arsenic. However, many of the ingredients tested far exceeded the legal limits set by the government for drinking water. The FDA limits for bottled water are 10 ppb inorganic arsenic, 5 ppb lead, and 5 ppb cadmium, while the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has mandated there be no more than 2 ppb mercury in drinking water.
“The test results of baby foods and their ingredients eclipse those levels: including results up to 91 times the arsenic level, up to 177 times the lead level, up to 69 times the cadmium level, and up to 5 times the mercury level,” the report authors wrote.
The report addressed corporate practices that might contribute to these high numbers. First, companies set high maximum levels for toxins. For example, Nurture set its internal standard for arsenic in rice cereal at 15 percent above the FDA standard. Second, companies still sell products that surpass their internal standards. Third, companies often test just the ingredients, not the final product. Finally, additives like minerals can increase the presence of toxic metals in baby foods.
The subcommittee expressed concerns about the products of the companies who had not submitted reports.
“For the companies that didn’t participate, it raises the concern that they might possess information that indicates the toxic metals in their foods might be even higher than their competitors,” Krishnamoorthi told The Washington Post.
The report authors made four recommendations:
- The FDA should require baby food makers to test their finished products, not just their ingredients.
- The FDA should require baby food makers to label their products with the amounts of toxic metals present.
- Baby food makers should phase out or find substitutes for ingredients that have high values of toxic metals, like rice.
- The FDA should set maximum thresholds for toxic metals in baby foods.
- Parents should avoid baby foods that contain high levels of toxic metals.
However, the representatives acknowledged that parents need support to make informed decisions.
“The FDA must set standards and regulate this industry much more closely, starting now. It’s shocking that parents are basically being completely left in the lurch by their government,” Krishnamoorthi told The Washington Post.