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Baby foods may contain 'dangerously high levels' of toxic heavy metals, report finds

The report called on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to set maximum levels of toxic heavy metals allowed in baby foods.
Baby food
The investigation “revealed that manufacturers knowingly sell tainted baby food to unsuspecting parents," a lawmaker said.Getty Images/VStock RF
/ Source: TODAY

Parents who rely on packaged baby food for their infants are getting a concerning new glimpse at what’s inside some of the jars, pouches or grain products.

“Commercial baby foods are tainted with significant levels of toxic heavy metals, including arsenic, lead, cadmium and mercury,” according to a report released last week by a House Oversight subcommittee.

Such toxic heavy metals can impact a baby’s neurological development and long-term brain function, with exposure lowering IQ and increasing risk of future criminal and antisocial behavior in children, the report noted.

The investigation conducted by the subcommittee “revealed that manufacturers knowingly sell tainted baby food to unsuspecting parents, in spite of internal company test results showing high levels of toxic heavy metal, and without any warning labels whatsoever,” said Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, chairman of the Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy, in a statement.

Rice in particular might not be a suitable ingredient for baby foods because it tested high in inorganic arsenic, the report noted.

'Dangerously high levels'

Congressional investigators asked seven of the largest U.S. baby food manufacturers to provide internal documents and test results.

Four of the companies — Nurture, Beech-Nut, Hain and Gerber — responded to the requests. Three others — Walmart, Campbell and Sprout Organic Foods — didn’t cooperate, leaving investigators “greatly concerned” about what they might be obscuring, the report noted.

The investigation found internal company standards permit dangerously high levels of toxic heavy metals, and manufacturers have often sold foods that exceeded those levels.

They also “eclipse” the levels of such metals the government allows in bottled water, including up to 91 times the arsenic level, up to 177 times the lead level, up to 69 times the cadmium level, and up to five times the mercury level.

The report called on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to set maximum levels of toxic heavy metals allowed in baby foods and require mandatory testing of the finished products.

Concern over heavy metals in baby food has existed for a long time and the findings aren’t surprising, said Dr. Leonardo Trasande, a pediatrics professor at NYU Grossman School of Medicine and director of the Center for the Investigation of Environmental Hazards at NYU Langone in New York City.

“Clearly we need better monitoring and testing of the food supply, especially for babies who pound for pound eat more food per body weight, so they have higher exposure and their developing organs are especially susceptible,” Trasande told TODAY.

“There are gaps in the regulatory framework… the reality is that the funding for the FDA is chiefly for drug studies and it is fair to say that resources for testing food in the comprehensive way that parents might prefer is not so easily available.”

In a statement, the FDA said it was reviewing the report’s findings and noted it “takes exposure to toxic elements in the food supply extremely seriously,” especially when it comes to children. Toxic elements like arsenic are present in the environment and enter the food supply through soil, water or air. Because they can't be completely removed, the FDA’s goal is to reduce exposure to toxic elements in foods “to the greatest extent feasible,” the agency said.

Companies respond

Walmart, which sells baby food through its private brand Parent’s Choice, said it’s committed to providing safe, quality food. “We provided information to the subcommittee nearly a year ago and invited more dialogue on this important issue but never received any additional inquiries,” the company said in a statement. Any product testing is managed by its suppliers, and its private label baby food manufacturers must comply with all applicable laws and regulations, Walmart said.

Campbell Soup Company, which sells baby food under the brand name Plum Organics, said it cooperated with congressional investigators. The company’s products are safe and it’s committed to minimizing environmental contaminants, its statement said.

Nurture said its 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.” The company said it was disappointed “at the many inaccuracies, select data usage and tone bias” in the report.

Hain Celestial Group said its Earth’s Best organic products meet or exceed the current federal guidelines, and provide safe nutrition for babies. The congressional report examined “outdated data and does not reflect our current practices,” the company noted in a statement. Hain Celestial Group elaborated that they had previously taken steps to reduce heavy metals in their products, like no longer using brown rice in products that are primarily rice-based.

Gerber called its baby food safety and quality standards “industry-leading” and among the strictest in the world, with many steps taken to minimize the presence of heavy metals. “Parents can rest assured our products are healthy and safe,” the company said in a statement.

Beech-Nut called its products safe and nutritious. It plans to continue to work with the FDA, in partnership with the Baby Food Council, on science-based standards for food suppliers.

Sprout Foods did not respond to a TODAY request for comment.

Pediatrician’s advice

There currently isn't good data to allow for picking certain baby food brands over others when it comes to heavy metal contamination, Trasande said.

Parents should also know it’s not possible to completely eliminate exposure since crops grow in soil and heavy metals are a part of the Earth's crust, he added.

“Now I'm not going to say that any level of these metals is safe. However, we have come a long way in reducing these exposures, and in the list of priorities that I would have, there are many other important areas where families can mitigate exposure to contaminants of concern,” he noted.

“They should focus first and foremost on eating organic. Nothing in that message changes because we know that eating organic reduces pesticide levels.”

Other important ways to reduce heavy metal exposure for kids include families making sure their homes are checked for lead-based paint and pregnant women eating fish low in mercury, Trasande advised.

Parents should also diversify a baby’s diet so that no one food dominates, reducing the amount of contamination from one particular product of concern — arsenic in infant rice cereal, for example, he noted.

If making your own baby food at home is an option, Trasande supported it, but he recognized that's not realistic for many families.

“This can't be fully just relying on parents to do their own thing. We need the kind of congressional oversight that was provided in this report,” he said.

“This is a good development in that now the attention is really being placed on this issue.”