WASHINGTON — A House subcommittee on Feb. 4 issued a scathing report alleging baby food manufacturers were marketing products they knew contained “dangerous levels of toxic heavy metals.” The report was prepared by staff of the subcommittee on economic and consumer policy of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform.
The subcommittee’s chairman, Representative Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois, said, “Baby food manufacturers hold a special position of public trust. But consumers mistakenly believe that these companies would not sell unsafe products. The subcommittee’s staff report found that these manufacturers knowingly sell baby food containing high levels of toxic heavy metals. I hope companies will commit to making safer baby foods. Regardless, it’s time that we develop much better standards for the sake of future generations.”
The subcommittee launched its investigation in November 2019 following reports alleging high levels of toxic heavy metals in baby foods. The subcommittee requested internal documents and test results from seven of the largest baby food manufacturers in the United States. Four of the companies — Nuture, Inc.; Beech-Nut Nutrition Co., Hain Celestial Group, Inc., and Gerber Products Co. — provided the requested information.
Based on this information, the subcommittee staff found commercial baby foods are tainted with significant levels of toxic heavy metals, including arsenic, lead, cadmium and mercury. Toxic heavy metals endanger infant neurological development and long-term brain function.
The report said internal company standards permit what staff said were dangerously high levels of toxic heavy metals. Staff said documents revealed manufacturers often have sold food that exceeded those internal levels.
The report said manufacturers’ prevalent practice of only testing their ingredients may conceal higher levels of toxic metal in finished baby foods.
And the report observed baby foods containing toxic heavy metals bear no label or warning.
The staff report made several recommendations.
First, baby food manufacturers should be required by the FDA to test their finished products for toxic heavy metals, not just their ingredients.
Second, manufacturers should be required by the FDA to report levels of toxic heavy metals on food labels.
Third, manufacturers should voluntarily find substitutes for ingredients that are high in toxic heavy metals or phase out products that have high amounts of ingredients that frequently test high in toxic heavy metals.
And fourth, the FDA should set maximum levels of toxic heavy metals permitted in baby foods. One level for each metal should apply across all baby foods.
“I look forward to FDA’s careful regulation of these toxic heavy metals in baby foods, followed by strict compliance requirements and mandatory consumer labels,” Mr. Krishnamoorthi said.
The FDA in a statement issued to Food Business News said it was reviewing the report’s findings.
“The FDA takes exposure to toxic elements in the food supply extremely seriously, especially when it comes to protecting the health and safety of the youngest and most vulnerable in the population,” a FDA spokesperson said. “Toxic elements, like arsenic, are present in the environment and enter the food supply through soil, water or air. Because they cannot be completely removed, our goal is to reduce exposure to toxic elements in foods to the greatest extent feasible, and we have been actively working on this issue using a risk-based approach to prioritize and target the agency’s efforts.”
The spokesperson continued, “We acknowledge that there is more work to be done, but the FDA reiterates its strong commitment to continue to reduce consumer exposure to toxic elements and other contaminants from food.”
Baby food manufacturers pushed back against the methodology and tenor of the report and pointed to their industry’s ongoing efforts to minimize levels of heavy toxic metals in baby food.
They also highlighted their participation in the Baby Foods Council alongside the Environmental Defense Fund and Healthy Babies Bright Future. The council is a group of infant and toddler food companies, supported by key stakeholders, that has begun to develop a Baby Food Standard and Certification Program aimed at reducing heavy metals in baby foods to as low as reasonably achievable.
Among corporate members of the Baby Foods Council are Gerber, Earth’s Best, Happy Family and Beech-Nut.
Gerber in a statement on the subcommittee report referred to the many steps it takes to minimize the presence of toxic heavy metals in ingredients grown for use in manufacturing baby food.
“Throughout the process we test produce, water, ingredients and our foods to ensure we are delivering on our promise to deliver high-quality and tasty baby food,” Gerber said.
The company also said it was working in collaboration with other Baby Food Council members to identify best agricultural practices and to create a voluntary industry standard to reduce heavy metal levels in baby foods to the lowest levels possible.
“In addition, we will provide our full support and expertise to FDA as they develop science-based regulation,” Gerber said.
Boma Brown-West, director of consumer health at the Environmental Defense Fund, said, “Today’s report underscores the urgency for companies to take immediate and aggressive action to reduce toxic heavy metals — including lead, cadmium and arsenic — in food, especially baby food. These heavy metals harm brain development in infants and children and pose financial and reputational liability for companies. In an era where companies’ behavior is being examined under a microscope, the real winners will emerge based on their ability to address toxic chemicals in baby food head on.”
Charlotte Brody, national director of Healthy Babies Bright Future, said, “This compelling new evidence lays bare FDA’s clear failure to protect babies from the toxic heavy metals in their food. 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.”