Beech-Nut, Gerber hit back as 2nd Congressional report accuses more baby food brands of 'a lax approach' over heavy metals and 'knowingly harming babies'

By Elaine Watson contact

- Last updated on GMT

Image credit:  Gettyimages-SeventyFour
Image credit: Gettyimages-SeventyFour

Related tags: Baby food, heavy metals

Seven months after releasing a report alleging “dangerous” levels of heavy metals in top baby food brands, Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi's subcommittee on economic and consumer policy has released a follow-up report alleging that the industry “consistently cut corners and put profit over the health of babies and children.”

Brands named in the report meanwhile, say they’re complying with current FDA rules and working closely with the agency to identify best practices where guidance has not yet been set.

The first report, issued Feb 4 by the House Oversight Committee’s subcommittee on economic and consumer policy (chaired by Rep Krishnamoorthi​) – prompted a torrent of lawsuits​​​​ and the introduction of The Baby Food Safety Act​​​​ in Congress, which sets very low action thresholds for lead, cadmium, mercury and inorganic arsenic in foods targeting infants.

The second staff report​ - which shares heavy metal data on selected baby foods from Walmart, Sprout, Plum Organics, Gerber and Beech-Nut – accuses Sprout of a “reckless​” and “lax approach” t​o testing; Walmart of initiating a “drastic retreat in safety standards​;” and Plum Organics of selling “tainted products​.”

“Plum provided its test results, which confirmed the Subcommittee’s concerns about the danger of some of its products. Walmart provided documents revealing a concerning lack of attention to toxic heavy metal levels in baby food and an abandonment of its previously more protective standards. The handful of documents that Sprout provided displayed a lax approach to testing for toxic heavy metals…”

Beech-Nut: ‘The assertion that Beech-Nut’s rice cereal recall was too narrow is incorrect’

It goes on to accuse Beech-Nut, which recalled selected infant rice cereal products in June​, of keeping other infant rice cereal products with “dangerous levels of toxic inorganic arsenic​” on the market.

In an email to FoodNavigator-USA, however, the company denied these allegations:

beech nut recall june 2021
Beech-Nut Nutrition issued a voluntary recall of one lot of its Stage 1, Single Grain Rice Cereal after routine sampling by the State of Alaska found that the products tested above the 100ppb guidance level for naturally occurring inorganic arsenic set by the FDA in August 2020, “though the rice flour used had been tested and confirmed as being below the FDA guidance level.”Given the ongoing challenge of sourcing rice flour consistently below FDA guidance levels for inorganic arsenic, Beech-Nut said it had decided to exit the infant rice cereal market.

“The assertion that Beech-Nut’s rice cereal recall was too narrow is incorrect. In addition to recalling the affected lots, Beech-Nut also proactively withdrew all Beech-Nut branded Single Grain Rice Cereal products from supermarket shelves. Further, Beech-Nut decided to exit the market for its branded infant rice products because it is concerned about being able to consistently obtain rice flour well-below the FDA guidance level.”

Asked about testing protocols, the company said “all ingredients are tested,​” and that it “continues to work with the FDA to identify the best practices, which may include finished product testing.

Gerber: ‘All Gerber foods have and continue to meet all applicable guidelines and limits set by the FDA’

Gerber is also singled out for “troubling​” behavior in the subcommittee report, which says: “Despite its products’ having similar inorganic arsenic levels to those of the Beech-Nut products, failed to take any action,” ​although the average level of inorganic arsenic in Gerber’s infant rice cereals– at 87.43ppb – is within FDA guidelines (set at 100ppb), so it is not clear on what basis the products should have been recalled.

Like Beech-Nut, Gerber pushed back on this in an email to FoodNavigator-USA:

 “While the Subcommittee report notes proposed limits on specific heavy metals,” ​a Gerber spokesperson told us, “those are based on proposed standards from the Baby Food Safety Act, which are not current law or regulation.

“All Gerber foods have and continue to meet all applicable guidelines and limits set by the FDA, the governing body for safety regulations in the food industry,” ​added Gerber, which was hit with a fresh lawsuit​ this month accusing it of violating California’s Prop 65 rules over levels of lead (Ecological Alliance v Gerber Products Company).

The FDA retested the sample, was unable to confirm the result by Alaska and confirmed to Gerber that no action was needed’

Asked about the claim that two samples tested above the FDA threshold of 100ppb, the Gerber spokesperson told us:

The FDA made us aware of their contact from the State of Alaska about a sample of our rice cereal that tested slightly above the guidance level for inorganic arsenic set by the FDA, and was referenced in the report. The FDA retested the sample, was unable to confirm the result by Alaska and confirmed to Gerber that no action was needed.”

Plum Organics (Sun-Maid): ‘We will thoroughly examine the updated report’

Plum Organics (formerly owned by Campbell Soup, now owned by Sun-Maid), was also singled out for criticism, with the report highlighting total arsenic levels of more than 200ppb in various Super Puff rice products, although the FDA guidance covers inorganic​ arsenic, for which Plum’s average level was 79ppb, ie. under the FDA’s action level of 100ppb.

A Sun-Maid spokesperson told us that it had “conducted rigorous due diligence on the Plum Organics brand before our recent acquisition. We will thoroughly examine the updated report… and continue to work with the subcommittee – as well as the industry at large – to address these matters.”

Former owner Campbell Soup added: “We have cooperated with the subcommittee throughout this process and will continue to do so… While we sold the Plum business in May 2021, we continue to support the FDA’s efforts in setting clear and specific science-based federal standards.”

Walmart: ‘We do not require our private brand suppliers… to submit all test results to our company in the ordinary course of business’

According to the report, “Walmartdoes not appear to conduct any testing of its baby food products for toxic heavy metals. Instead, it sets maximum toxic heavy metal levels and asks the manufacturer of Walmart’s private label to self-certify that products meet those levels​.”

Walmart responded by observing that, “Like many other grocers/retailers, we do not require our private brand suppliers (or their suppliers of raw materials) to submit all test reports or test results to our Company in the ordinary course of business.”

It did not comment on the subcommittee’s claims that it “abandoned its protective standards of a maximum inorganic arsenic limit of 23ppb ​[set in 2012 for infant rice cereal], quadrupling its standard to 100ppb without any justification,” ​although a spokesman pointed out that the current federal guidance is set at 100ppb.

Sprout: ‘Working diligently to incorporate this [Closer to Zero] approach into our business’

Sprout, meanwhile, said it stands “ready to make any changes to our sourcing or processing systems that may be advised by the FDA, USDA, or other relevant regulatory bodies​” and that in the meantime, it is “working diligently to incorporate this​ [Closer to Zero] approach into our business and encourage all interested parties to read the plan and gain a deeper understanding of this topic.”

Lead, cadmium, mercury

While most of the report focuses on inorganic arsenic, the subcommittee notes that the levels of lead and cadmium in select baby foods from Plum Organics exceed levels permitted in bottled water, although the FDA has argued that action levels for one category are not necessarily relevant to another (action levels for lead, mercury and cadmium have not yet been set by the FDA for baby foods).

Rep. Krishnamoorthi

Rep Raja Krishnamoorthi: “My Subcommittee’s investigation has pulled back the curtain on the baby foods industry, and each revelation has been more damning than the last… the baby food industry has consistently cut corners and put profit over the health of babies and children. 

“My investigation continues to reveal alarming information, but I am determined to use the facts to protect future generations.”

Read our recent interview with the Congressman HERE​.

Image credit: Office of Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi

FDA: ‘It is crucial that measures to limit toxic elements in foods do not have unintended consequences’

The FDA told FoodNavigator-USA that since laying out its Closer to Zero plan​ in April, it “continues to make steady progress towards developing action levels for lead in foods and evaluating the science to establish reference levels for arsenic and cadmium.”

Asked about the subcommittee’s demand that it accelerate its efforts, a spokesperson told us: “While we understand that people may want rapid changes, it is crucial that measures to limit toxic elements in foods do not have unintended consequences—like limiting access to foods that have significant nutritional benefits by making them unavailable or unaffordable for many families.”

Report ‘shocked and confused parents of young children’

While the first subcommittee report acknowledged that arsenic, lead, cadmium and mercury are present in soil and water and can be sucked up by plants, this was lost on many parents, who assumed that ditching ‘processed’ baby food and instead buying organic foods, or making their own baby food by shopping the produce aisle or buying canned produce was the solution, which is not the case, said Conrad Choiniere, Ph.D., director of the Office of Analytics and Outreach at FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, at a recent conference.

The crops that are used to produce baby foods are also the crops that are used to fill the produce aisle ​​[in the supermarket] or the crops that are used in canned goods in stores, so you're going to find contamination with lead and arsenic and the others across all of those types of foods, including organically grown foods.”

Rep Krishnamoorthi: ‘When companies and industries are left to self-regulate, the results are very bad’

Speaking to FoodNavigator-USA earlier this month (click HERE​) Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi said his reports – criticized by some commentators as alarmist – had provided a necessary jolt to industry and the FDA, and that he intends to keep this issue top of mind via the Baby Food Safety Act.

He added: “I feel very good about the Act​​ [which was introduced to Congress in March]. Speaker Pelosi endorsed it a couple months ago, and it has a lot of support in both the House and the Senate… I expect that my office is going to make a big push on this once some of that other legislation gets addressed.”​​

Asked about the FDA's warning about possible "unintended consequences​" of setting unrealistic targets, he said that feasibility should not be a guiding factor when setting thresholds, noting that if the targets in the Baby Food Safety Act are not achievable with existing recipes, baby food brands should simply reformulate their products.

“If it is not possible, or it is exceedingly costly, to source ingredients like rice that achieve a safe level, then baby food manufacturers should find substitutes for those ingredients.”​​

‘Industry has done a very poor job of regulating itself’​​

Rep Krishnamoorthi added: “I think the FDA has been absent without leave on this issue, and a lot of parents are just shocked that FDA has not regulated this area much more closely.​​”

To those arguing that a more constructive approach would have been to work with FDA and industry to fast-track work already in progress rather than publishing a report that prompted a wave of lawsuits and scared parents, he said: “I think the companies anticipated that ​​[they would be sued] once the truth got out, and that's in part why there was a mystery surrounding so much of this information for so long.​​

“That's usually what happens when the truth gets out, people then want to hold industry accountable, and that's why there has to be more transparency, there has to be more information given to the public and to parents, who are petrified right now.W​​hen companies and industries are left to self-regulate, the results are very bad.”

The Baby Food Safety Act ​​

Baby-food-GettyImages-monkeybusinessimages

Under the Baby Food Safety Act​,​  introduced to Congress in March, manufacturers of infant formula and baby foods for kids up to 36 months would be required to adhere to maximum levels of four heavy metals within a year of the act coming into effect:

  • Inorganic arsenic​ (10 ppb, 15 ppb for cereal)
  • lead​ (5 ppb, 10 ppb for cereal)
  • cadmium​ (5 ppb, 10 ppb for cereal)
  • mercury​ (2 ppb)

FDA: Closer to Zero

The FDA’s Closer to Zero action plan lays out actions to lower levels of arsenic, lead, mercury and cadmium in foods eaten by babies and young children, over time, a spokesperson told us:

"The action level of 100 ppb for infant rice cereal was identified as a level that would reduce associated cancer risks from exposures, and we also determined that it was achievable by industry.  We are currently working to identify a reference level for developmental impacts on children that we can use to guide the development of action levels for foods.

"The FDA plans to consult with stakeholders on issues related to achievability for meeting proposed action levels and feasibility for making further reductions before adjusting and finalizing action levels to achieve our goal of reducing exposure to toxic elements from foods eaten by babies and young children—to as low as possible."

Image: GettyImages-monkeybusinessimages

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