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The Food and Drug Administration Fails to Regulate Heavy Metals in Baby Food Efficiently

— December 22, 2021

On February 4, the House Committee on Oversight and Reform made public a report that has sparked outrage among parents across the country. The investigation found the baby food manufactured by seven major companies to contain alarming concentrations of four dangerous heavy metals: arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury. Frequent exposure to these hazardous agents from ingesting tainted food is associated with autism spectrum disorders in children. The baby food manufacturers whose products contain dangerously high levels of heavy metals are Beech-Nut, Earth’s Best Organic, Gerber, Happy Family Organics, Parent’s Choice, Plum Organics, and Kroger.

The Food and Drug Administration currently has a safe limit set only for arsenic in infant rice cereal. This concerns toxic agents in baby foods and encourages companies to skip testing for heavy metals. Even so, the permissible limit of the agency is 100 parts per billion (ppb), which is considered risky by most health organizations; according to them, it is still too high for babies. The Food and Drug Administration does not regulate the other three heavy metals of concern in baby food. While the agency has come up with the Closer to Zero plan, which aims to minimize the concentrations of heavy metals in baby food, its strategy is seen as inefficient by many critics, as it does not include aggressive enough timelines.

What Exactly Does the Closer to Zero Plan of the Food and Drug Administration Entail?

According to the agency, the Closer to Zero plan is meant to identify the actions it will take to reduce exposure to heavy metals from baby food to as low as possible. The Food and Drug Administration claims that it has “prioritized babies and young children because their smaller body sizes and metabolism make them more vulnerable to the harmful effects of these contaminants.” However, just after the emergence of the congressional report exposing the seven major companies, the agency decided to take measures in this respect. The fact that its Closer to Zero plan has April as a starting month proves it without question.

Furthermore, the agency has divided the Closer to Zero plan into four stages, making it more unnecessarily complex. During the first stage, the Food and Drug Administration proposes to evaluate the scientific basis for action levels, even though evidence supporting the neurotoxicity of the four heavy metals is plentiful and health agencies in other countries have clear limits set for these harmful agents in baby food. The second stage entails proposing action levels, whereas the third stage involves consulting with the stakeholders on the proposed action levels. It is only during the fourth and last stage that the agency is to take a final decision. Nevertheless, the fact that the Food and Drug Administration estimates that its Closer to Zero plan will come to fruition in 2024 or even later speaks volumes about the effectiveness of the agency’s strategy.

Frustrated with the slow actions of the Food and Drug Administration, a coalition of 24 Attorneys General petitioned it to prioritize establishing maximum limits for heavy metals in baby food on October 21. The petition criticized the agency because its Closer to Zero plan does not imply sufficiently urgent timelines for minimizing the levels of cadmium, arsenic, lead, and mercury in baby food. Consequently, the attorneys urge the Food and Drug Administration to set interim proposed action levels as soon as possible.

Despite being accused of not taking action quickly enough, the agency claims that it is taking actions “to remove from the market certain products that contain detectable levels of lead with little to no nutritional value, and those containing cadmium” and that it “has taken at least 20 regulatory actions against infant formula and baby food manufacturers for violating current good manufacturing practices in the last year alone”. Nonetheless, a beacon of hope might be the Baby Food Safety Act of 2021, which proposes significantly more practical measures to reduce the level of heavy metals in baby formula and toddler food.

Image of a baby boy and his teddy
Baby Boy and his Teddy; image courtesy of
cherylholt via Pixabay,

The Baby Food Safety Act of 2021, Already Proposing Safe Limits for the Four Heavy Metals of Concern

Introduced on March 26, the Baby Food Safety Act is a bill that, if it becomes law, would immediately set allowable limits for cadmium, arsenic, lead, and mercury in baby food. The safe limits for the proposed four heavy metals of concern are 5 ppb for cadmium, 10 ppb for arsenic, 5 ppb for lead, and 2 ppb for mercury. The man behind the laudable initiative is Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi. Furthermore, in addition to setting permissible limits for the toxic agents, the Baby Food Safety Act would also expand the authority of the Food and Drug Administration.

In other words, it would force the agency to get more involved in regulating baby food. Accordingly, it would have to regularly review and, if needed, lower the safe limits for heavy metals even more. The Food and Drug Administration would be able to set limits on other toxic agents after consulting up-to-date health and dietary data. Lastly, the agency would have the power to recall tainted or misbranded food, including baby food with exceeded limits of heavy metals.

As for baby food manufacturers, they will have to undergo periodical controls and enforce plans to make sure their products comply with the effective limits if the Baby Food Act becomes law. The companies would also have to make public information such as the results from tests for heavy metals in their baby food. The Baby Food Safety Act has not yet passed the Senate, which is pending. We should expect to hear updates about it within the following months. If it becomes effective, the risk of children developing autism will significantly diminish, and baby food will finally become safe to consume for infants and toddlers.

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