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There’s at least a little bit of lead in some baby food on the U.S. market, an environmental group said Thursday.
They cannot tell you how much lead is in the food or which foods it is in. And for the individual parent or child, it’s probably not enough to make an important difference.
Pediatricians who were not involved in the study agreed: lead-based paint and lead-contaminated water are by far the biggest sources of lead affecting U.S. children.
But the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) says it’s time for the Food and Drug Administration and food manufacturers to get all the lead out of food, especially baby food.
“Lead was detected in 20 percent of baby food samples compared to 14 percent for other food,” the Environmental Defense Fund said in its report.
“Eight types of baby foods had detectable lead in more than 40 percent of samples. Baby food versions of apple and grape juices and carrots had more samples with detectable lead than the regular versions.”
No safe level
Lead is extremely toxic and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says there is no known safe level of lead for anyone to eat, drink or breathe in.
In babies, especially, lead can kill developing brain cells. There’s no cure for the damage — the only thing parents and doctors can do is catch lead exposure as early as possible and stop it.
The EDF analyzed 11 years of data from the FDA about what the agency found in baby food.
“Overall, 20 percent of the 2,164 baby food composite samples and 14 percent of the other 10,064 food composite samples had detectable levels of lead,” the report reads.
“The root vegetables category had the highest rate of lead detection, with lead found in 65 percent of the composite samples. The crackers and cookies category was next with 47 percent followed by fruits, including juices, with 29 percent.”
Just 4 percent of cereals contained lead.
“What we did in this analysis was to say was lead present or not — not how much was there,” Sarah Vogel, vice president of EDF’s health program, told NBC News.
So the report cannot say if the amount of lead is a lot or a little.
“It’s frustrating, I realize, because the data we have doesn’t actually have brand information,” Vogel said.
“The only thing parents can do right now is to reach out to their favorite brands and ask them what they are doing (to ensure products are lead-free).”
Still, parents have other, more important sources to worry about, said Dr. Phil Landrigan, an environmental medicine expert at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine.
“Lead paint is still the Number 1 source of exposure in this country by a wide margin, the authors acknowledge that,” Landrigan told NBC News.
“Water is a more pervasive source of lead than lead in food, but there’s probably some overlap. Food comes in third place.”
Dr. Karen Fratantoni, a pediatrician at Children’s National Health System in Washington, D.C., agreed.
“We don’t really consider foodstuff as a significant source of lead,” she said.
Some fruit juices seemed more likely than others to contain lead. The FDA found lead in 89 percent of the 44 different samples of grape juice tested, according to the EDF report.
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Another unknown: how the lead got into food. It might be in the soil the food was grown it, it might be in processing equipment or packaging or it might be in the water supply used to make the food.
Gerber Products Company said its baby foods are safe, but did not say they are lead-free.
"We test our finished products, and results for over 2,000 samples of Gerber baby foods and juices show all our products fall well within available guidance levels," Gerber said in a statement released to the TODAY Show.
"This includes tests of more than 1,150 samples of Gerber juices, of which 100 percent were below the limit set by the Environmental Protection Agency for drinking water."
“We know that the FDA is working to reduce the levels of lead allowed in food,” Vogel said.
Eat fresh when possible
She urged parents to lobby food manufacturers to make sure there’s no lead in the products they buy.
Vogel said the group also has spoken with some food manufacturers, but she declined to name which ones.
Landrigan said no one appears to have broken any laws or agreements.
“All these lead levels that were found in baby foods are within current standards, so the manufacturer has no duty to inform the consumer and FDA is not required to put out any warning,” he told NBC News.
“But these standards are out of date and are set too high,” Landrigan added. “Food companies should make every effort to get lead out of their products.”
Dr. Maida Galvez, a pediatrician and environmental medicine specialist at Mt. Sinai, said the report’s findings are frustrating and offer little guidance to the average parent.
“We would want more data than this report offers,” she said.
“The message to families should not be ‘avoid these foods’. Rather, ensure a variety of food for your children. Eat fresh when possible. In general, if you eat more fresh versus processed foods, your level of exposure to a range of environmental chemicals will be lower.”
The FDA says it's taking another look at how it measures lead in food.
"The FDA is continuing to work with industry to further limit the amount of lead in foods to the greatest extent feasible, especially in foods frequently consumed by children," the agency said in a statement.
"We determine, on a case-by-case basis, whether to take enforcement action when we find foods that are contaminated with lead."
Researchers Judy Silverman and Dr. Felix Gussone, NBC News Health & Medical, contributed to this report