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On heels of congressional report, FDA announces initiatives to further reduce toxic elements in baby foods

Some large producers of baby food reacted to a series of initiatives announced by FDA following a congressional probe widely reported by media.

Josh Long

March 12, 2021

6 Min Read
On heels of congressional report, FDA announces initiatives to further reduce toxic elements in baby foods

FDA recently publicized new initiatives to reduce toxic elements in food for babies and young children.

The new actions, which include a plan to increase sampling of food for babies and young children and share the results, were disclosed a month after a congressional investigation revealed top-name baby foods contained concerning levels of toxic heavy metals such as arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury.

“We share the public’s concerns for the health of America’s children, and want to reassure parents and caregivers that at the levels we have found through our testing, children are not at an immediate health risk from exposure to toxic elements in foods,” two top FDA officials shared in a March 5 statement.

The statement was issued by FDA Acting Commissioner Janet Woodcock, M.D., and Susan Mayne, Ph.D., director of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN).

Woodcock and Mayne disclosed the following plans to prevent or reduce chemical hazards that may be present in food for babies and young children:

  • Issuing guidance to identify action levels for contaminants in key foods, with plans to revisit those levels on a regular basis and lower them if appropriate, as well as providing guidance to industry on how to meet their obligations under current regulations;

  • Increasing inspections and, as appropriate, taking compliance and enforcement actions;

  • Boosting sampling of foods for babies and young children, including sharing results;

  • Working with government, academia and industry to support research and development of additional safety information on toxic elements in foods for babies and young children and additional steps that industry can take to further reduce levels.

Several companies identified in the congressional report and contacted for this article emphasized their commitment to ensuring the safety of their products.

“We want to assure parents and caregivers that Beech-Nut products are, and have always been, safe and nutritious,” Beech-Nut Nutrition said in an emailed statement. “Beech-Nut Nutrition looks forward to continuing to work with the FDA, in partnership with the Baby Food Council, on science-based standards that food suppliers can implement across our industry. Beech-Nut is committed to continually refining its internal standards and testing processes as technology and knowledge develops.”

A spokesperson for Gerber said the baby food producer “strongly” supports FDA’s actions “to help further reduce heavy metals in infant and toddler foods.”

“We are pleased that the FDA has reinforced the use of food safety best practices and tools that we have long followed at Gerber,” the spokesperson said in an emailed statement.

FDA also made public a letter addressed to manufacturers of baby and toddler foods that reminded them of their obligations to consider chemical hazards that may be present in food.

“Our goal is to reduce exposure to toxic elements in foods to the greatest extent feasible and to further advance progress in this area through more research and enhanced collaboration among stakeholders,” Mayne wrote in a March 5 letter to the baby and toddler food manufacturers and processors.

In the statement and letter to industry, FDA observed toxic elements are present in the air, soil and water and may end up in the food supply.

Several food companies reiterated the above observation. “Heavy metals are naturally found in water and soil and can become a part of certain fruits, vegetables and grains as they grow,” the Gerber spokesperson said. “This is true whether you buy them in the grocery store or at your local farmer’s market.”

Mayne cited several actions to protect the public from toxic elements in food, including a consent decree entered by a federal court in January ordering a U.S. company to cease distributing adulterated juice products, as well as dozens of import-related actions in recent years to prevent the importation into the U.S. of products with potentially high levels of toxic elements.

Apart from its planned initiatives above, Mayne and Woodcock also revealed plans soon to announce “a public workshop to discuss the science surrounding levels of exposure that result in developmental impacts, and the foods that may contribute to those exposures, to identify solutions to protect our youngest consumers.”

FDA’s March 5 announcement drew the support of Campbell Soup Company, which markets Plum Organics products for babies, toddlers and children.

“Campbell is strongly committed to working with the FDA to continue to ensure that food for all of our children is safe and nutritious,” Amanda Pisano, a Campbell spokesperson, said in an emailed statement. “We support the FDA’s development of clear and specific science-based standards on this subject.”

A congressional report issued in February—“Baby Foods Are Tainted with Dangerous Levels of Arsenic, Lead, Cadmium and Mercury”—raised consumer and media concern while turning up the heat on baby food manufacturers. The report was released by the U.S. House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy Committee on Oversight and Reform.

Lawmakers in November 2019 requested internal documents and test results from seven of the biggest manufacturers of baby food in the U.S., including Nurture Inc., Beech-Nut Nutrition Company, Hain Celestial Group Inc., Gerber, Campbell Soup Company, Walmart Inc. and Sprout Foods Inc. Some of the companies refused to cooperate with the investigation, the congressional subcommittee said.

“According to internal company documents and test results obtained by the Subcommittee, commercial baby foods are tainted with significant levels of toxic heavy metals, including arsenic, lead, cadmium and mercury,” an executive summary in the report disclosed. “Exposure to toxic heavy metals causes permanent decreases in IQ, diminished future economic productivity, and increased risk of future criminal and antisocial behavior in children. Toxic heavy metals endanger infant neurological development and long-term brain function.”

Campbell observed there is no FDA standard for heavy metals in baby food. “As we told the Committee in our response, our testing showed each product was well within levels deemed acceptable by independent authorities,” the company said in a statement.

Hain Celestial Group, which sells baby food products under the brand name Earth’s Best Organic, asserted the report failed to reflect its current policies, reviewed “outdated data” and inaccurately described a meeting with FDA.

“Like any food producer, we meet with regulatory and oversight agencies to refine and update our policies and procedures to ensure the safety of our products,” the company said in a statement after the report was published. “As science evolves, so too should our standards and practices, which is why we met with the FDA last year to discuss how to better refine those standards and practices.”

 

 

 

About the Author(s)

Josh Long

Associate editorial director, Natural Products Insider, Informa Markets Health and Nutrition

Josh Long has been a journalist since 1997, holds a J.D. from the University of Wyoming College of Law, and was admitted to practice law in Colorado in 2008. Josh is the legal and regulatory editor with Informa's Health and Nutrition Network, specializing on matters related to Natural Products Insider. Ping him with story ideas at [email protected].

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