A U.S. lawmaker this week announced another investigation that identified high levels of heavy metals in baby foods.
In its report, the House Oversight and Reform Committee’s Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy criticized several companies for their testing practices while offering recommendations for FDA and industry to better protect public health.
The new staff report was issued nearly eight months after the same congressional subcommittee released its bombshell investigation disclosing purportedly dangerous levels of arsenic, lead and other heavy metals in baby foods.
The new report discloses “companies not only under-report the high levels of toxic content in their baby food, but also knowingly keep toxic products on the market,” Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.), who chairs the Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy, said in a Sept. 29 press release. “The facts speak for themselves, and the fact of the matter is that the baby food industry has consistently cut corners and put profit over the health of babies and children.”
Among the subcommittee’s findings, as summarized in the press release:
- Several samples of infant rice cereals produced by Beech-Nut Nutrition and Nestlé’s Gerber contained more inorganic arsenic than the limit (100 parts per billion) set by FDA, according to FDA-funded testing conducted by the state of Alaska. Two of Gerber’s products tested over the FDA limit, yet the company failed to take them off store shelves or advise the public, while Beech-Nut Nutrition recalled just two of its six products that exceeded the FDA threshold.
- Plum Organics baby foods contain up to 225 ppb inorganic arsenic, and the majority of them contain more than 5 ppb lead. Nearly 40% of the baby foods exceed 5 ppb cadmium.
- Walmart in 2018 quadrupled its inorganic arsenic limit to 100 ppb from 23 ppb “without any justification,” reflecting “an extreme course reversal on efforts to protect babies’ neurological development.”
- The baby foods industry continues to decline to test its finished products for heavy metals, despite knowledge that its ingredient testing method is inaccurate. For instance, “Beech-Nut’s ingredient testing failed to detect the toxic baby food that it was forced to recall after finished product testing showed that it exceeded 100 ppb inorganic arsenic.” Meanwhile, Sprout Foods does not test its finished products and allows its ingredient manufacturers to just test once annually.
“Based on my Subcommittee’s findings, I’m urgently calling on the baby food industry to immediately end harmful practices and conduct finished-product testing,” Krishnamoorthi said. “We have been working closely with FDA on regulations, and this report highlights the need for the agency to accelerate its proposed timeline for publishing them.”
In response to the subcommittee report, Beech-Nut Nutrition contested the assertion that a recall in June was too narrow following testing of its products by the state of Alaska.
“In addition to recalling the affected lots, Beech-Nut also proactively withdrew all Beech-Nut branded Single Grain Rice Cereal products from supermarket shelves,” the company said in an emailed statement. “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.”
Heavy metals are naturally present in the air, soil and water and thus are inevitably found in the food supply, according to the company.
“We are committed to continuously improving our food sourcing safety and quality standards based on the most up-to-date, scientific technology,” Beech-Nut Nutrition said. “As part of its continuous improvement practices, Beech-Nut continues to work with the FDA to identify the best practices, which may include finished product testing.”
Gerber also addressed the subcommittee’s report, including the state of Alaska’s testing of its products. FDA disclosed to Gerber that one of its samples of rice cereal slightly exceeded the agency’s guidance level of inorganic asserted, according to a Gerber spokesperson. However, FDA retested the sample and could not verify Alaska’s testing result, confirming Gerber didn’t need to take any action, the spokesperson said in an emailed statement.
“Gerber is committed to reducing the levels of heavy metals in our baby foods to the lowest levels possible,” the spokesperson added.
Commenting on the subcommittee report, Walmart proclaimed it has always mandated its suppliers’ products meet FDA-established guidelines.
“Our specifications have always been aligned with or below the FDA requirements for naturally occurring elements, and the FDA noted in April that its testing shows that children ‘are not at an immediate health risk to exposure,’” Walmart said in an emailed statement.
Walmart added it looked forward to additional guidance from FDA, which has initiated a process to create science-based standards for infant and baby foods.
In a letter sent in February to Krishnamoorthi, Walmart described some of its food-safety policies, including a requirement that its private-brand food suppliers or manufacturers first be certified to a GSFI (Global Food Safety Initiative) audit program.
Some of the companies identified in the recent congressional report, including Plum Organics and Sprout Foods, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Based on its investigation, the House Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy recommended:
- FDA expedite its proposed timelines for publishing final limits for heavy metals and require finished-product testing.
- Baby food makers voluntarily test their finished products for toxic heavy metals and phase out products that contain high amounts of ingredients that often test high in toxic heavy metals, such as rice.
FDA also responded to the subcommittee report, saying it’s been working for decades to reduce levels of toxic elements that enter the U.S. food supply via air, water and soil. Such work has “already reduced exposure from many foods,” the agency said in an emailed statement.
FDA in April released an action plan dubbed “Closer to Zero” to reduce exposure to toxic elements from food for babies and young children.
Since unveiling the plan, the agency “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,” FDA said in an emailed statement. “We have continued our sampling to help inform our process to set levels, and we are working to strengthen our relationships with federal partners, industry and advocates to ensure that we make meaningful and lasting reductions in exposure to toxic elements from foods.”
The agency cautioned, however, that its work requires careful consideration of the consequences.
“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 for many families,” FDA said.