‘The agency has failed to adequately regulate baby food…’ NY attorney general urges FDA to set standards for heavy metals

By Elaine Watson contact

- Last updated on GMT

New York AG: 'I am deeply concerned by this report and its implications for New Yorkers and for families across the country..." (Picture credit: Gettyimages-Prostock-Studio)
New York AG: 'I am deeply concerned by this report and its implications for New Yorkers and for families across the country..." (Picture credit: Gettyimages-Prostock-Studio)

Related tags: Baby food, heavy metals

New York Attorney General Letitia James has urged the FDA to follow recommendations in a recent congressional subcommittee report and set limits for toxic metals across all baby foods.

In a letter​ to acting FDA Commissioner Dr. Janet Woodcock, James said the findings of a recent report​​ ​​from the Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy in the House of Representatives, were “distressing​.”

She added: “I strongly urge the FDA to consider and implement the recommendations set forth by this report​ ​[which has already prompted a series of proposed class action lawsuits​].

AG's office will 'explore all options as it relates to baby food manufacturers'

Noting that her office would “explore all options as it relates to baby food manufacturers” ​[a statement we have asked her office to clarify] ​she said: “The FDA should set standards across all baby foods, not just rice cereal, and require all food manufacturers to test their finished products for toxic metals rather than just their separate ingredients.

“Consumers should also be able to clearly see the reported levels of these metals on the labels of the products they buy for their children so they may be informed.”

While the FDA set limits on toxic metals in other consumable products such as bottled water​[5ppb lead], juice​[50ppb lead], and candy ​[0.1ppm lead],​ it has “failed to adequately regulate baby food,” ​she claimed.

“The cumulative impact of dangerously high levels of these heavy metals poses serious risks for the health and development of infants and young children.

“Continued exposure can affect a child’s brain development, behavior, and IQ over the long-term.”

'In the absence of FDA leadership and oversight, baby food manufacturers have been able to set their own internal standards'

The FDA recently regulated​ the level of inorganic arsenic in rice cereal for infants at a maximum of 100 ppb, “which notably is still ten times greater than what is allowed for bottled water,” ​said James.

“The Subcommittee’s report illustrates a lack of enforcement on even this standard, noting that one company, Nurture ​[Happy Family Organics], sold infant rice cereal that contained inorganic arsenic at 115 ppb, which is above the FDA’s threshold.

“In the absence of FDA leadership and oversight, baby food manufacturers have been able to set their own internal standards for levels of toxic metals including lead, cadmium, and mercury, in their products. For example, Beech-Nut set its own standard for arsenic and cadmium at 3,000 ppb in additives for their products.”

'The report highlights how companies regularly do not comply with even their own guidelines'

The nonprofit Healthy Babies Bright Futures​ (which wrote the 2019 report​ that prompted the subcommittee’s investigation) “suggests that there should be no measurable amount* of cadmium present in baby food,” ​added James. 

“The report also highlights how companies regularly do not comply with even their own guidelines. Hain, the company behind Earth’s Best Organic baby food, exceeded its internal standards of 200 ppb for lead in some of its ingredients, at times using ingredients that contained 353 ppb of lead.

“By comparison, the EU has set a limit for lead of 20 ppb in infant formula and groups like the American Academy of Pediatrics, Consumer Reports, and the Environmental Defense Fund have called for a standard of 1 ppb in food and drink consumed by young children.”

Happy Family Organics: ‘Disappointed at the many inaccuracies, select data usage and tone bias in this report’

A Hain Celestial (Earth’s Best) spokesperson said the company was “disappointed that the Subcommittee report examined outdated data and does not reflect our current practices.” ​​

Following a meeting with the FDA (which Hain says the report mischaracterized as ‘secret’), the company “took several steps to reduce the levels of heavy metals in our finished products – including no longer using brown rice in our products that are primarily rice based, changing other ingredients and conducting additional testing of finished product before shipping,” ​added the spokesperson.

Happy Family Organics (Nurture, Inc) said the test results referenced in the report were "not representative generally of our entire range of products at-shelf today,"​​ adding that it was "disappointed at the many inaccuracies, select data usage and tone bias in this report."​​

The report also failed to spell out that many everyday foods contain trace amounts of these elements, which are found in soil and water, whether they are prepared at home or sold as packaged food, added the company.

"We can say with the utmost confidence that all Happy Family Organics products are safe for babies and toddlers to enjoy, and we are proud to have best-in-class testing protocols in our industry... ​We are committed to progress and welcome additional guidelines from the FDA.​​

"Additionally, we are partnering with industry leaders in the creation of a ​​Baby Food Standard​​ with the shared goal of reducing the levels of heavy metals to as low as reasonably achievable."

Is it feasible to have no measurable amounts of toxic heavy metals in foods?

*​In its 2019 report,​ Healthy Babies Bright Futures "urges all baby food companies to establish a goal of no measurable amounts of cadmium, lead, mercury, and inorganic arsenic in baby and children’s food.​"

According to the FDA​, however, this may be unrealistic for some metals: "As a naturally occurring element, it is not possible to remove arsenic entirely from the environment or food supply. The FDA, therefore, seeks to limit consumer exposure to arsenic to the greatest extent feasible." ​It says the same about lead, adding​: "It is not possible to remove or completely prevent lead from entering the food supply. The FDA, therefore, seeks to limit consumer exposure to lead in foods to the greatest extent feasible."

Further reading:

infant feeding-Gettyimages-SeventyFour
Gettyimages-SeventyFour

report​​ ​​released Feb 4 by the Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy in the House of Representatives, contains the results of an investigation launched in the wake of an October 2019 report (‘Healthy Babies Bright Futures​​​’) raising alarm bells about heavy metals in baby foods. It calls for:

  • Mandatory testing ​​for toxic heavy metals in finished products, not just ingredients
  • Labeling​​ of levels of toxic heavy metals on pack
  • Maximum levels​​ of toxic heavy metals permitted in baby foods to be set by the FDA ​

An FDA official acknowledged that “there is more work to be done​​,” but told FoodNavigator-USA​ that sampling showed manufacturers “had made significant progress in reducing arsenic in infant rice cereal products” ​​since 2016. The agency did not say whether it is planning to set action levels for lead, mercury or cadmium in infant foods.

The FDA has been “providing consumers with actionable advice to limit exposure​​” to “toxic elements​​,” said the official: “For example, the FDA has communicated advice about the importance of feeding infants a variety of grain-based infant cereals. Rice cereal fortified with iron is a good source of nutrients for infants, but it shouldn’t be the only source and does not need to be the first one.”​​

The official added: “​​Our scientists conduct research designed to help us better understand the problem and identify solutions. This includes estimating young children’s exposure to cadmium and lead using Total Diet Study data; improving existing methods to detect toxic elements in even more foods; assessing whether rinsing and cooking rice lowers arsenic levels and identifying new methods that will help us determine how simultaneous exposure to multiple metals may affect health. ​​

“The toxicity of specific metals, the amount of intake, and a person’s age and developmental stage are all key factors that help determine how exposure to metals and other contaminants may affect individual health.”

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