Heavy-Metal 'Tainted' Baby Food? Congressional Report Omits Important Science

Related articles

A new report from a Congressional subcommittee concludes "that commercial baby foods contain dangerous levels of arsenic, lead, mercury, and cadmium." While these products inevitably contain tiny quantities of these heavy metals, which are ubiquitous in nature, baby foods generally pose minimal risk to young children.

Are new parents feeding their children baby foods chock-full of “toxic heavy metals”? The answer is “yes,” according to a new analysis from a U.S. House Oversight subcommittee. “The Subcommittee’s investigation continues to reveal that commercial baby foods contain dangerous levels of arsenic, lead, mercury, and cadmium,” the report concluded. “These toxic heavy metals pose serious health risks to babies and toddlers. Manufacturers knowingly sell these products to unsuspecting parents, in spite of internal company standards and test results, and without any warning label.”

ABC News amplified the report's alarming conclusion:

Brands including Gerber, Plum Organics, Beech-Nut and Walmart are named in the report, which calls on baby food manufacturers to begin voluntarily testing their products for toxic heavy metals and to phase out products that contain large amounts of ingredients that test high in toxic heavy metals.

I take these kinds of allegations very seriously as a new parent. The thought that I might be slowly poisoning my son with baby foods readily available in grocery stores horrifies me, as I'm sure it does any mom or dad. Regulators, food producers, and parents should pay careful attention to what goes into baby foods, but a detailed look at this new report and the relevant peer-reviewed literature tells a very different story: the products available in U.S. grocery stores are generally very safe for children to consume.

What did the report find?

The subcommittee report is based on data collected by Alaska's Department of Environmental Health Laboratory. The lab tested samples of baby foods produced by the above-mentioned brands and sold in Anchorage supermarkets for the presence of arsenic, lead, and cadmium. Beech-Nut’s and Gerber’s infant rice cereals contained “more inorganic arsenic than FDA’s 100 parts per billion (ppb) limit (an already dangerously-high standard that FDA is now lowering),” the report alleged. Beech-Nut's products included as much as 125 ppb inorganic arsenic and averaged 85.47 ppb inorganic arsenic. Gerber’s rice cereal contained up to 116 ppb inorganic arsenic, with an average of 87.43 ppb.

One conclusion is immediately apparent: the average sample contained inorganic arsenic at levels below the FDA's safety threshold. If you're wondering why the agency hasn't recalled these products, which federal law empowers it to do, the preceding numbers should clue you in. In fact, the vast majority of samples from both brands suggest that neither poses an elevated risk to children. The report subtly acknowledged this on page 12:

Gerber’s Rice Cereal averaged 87.43 ppb inorganic arsenic—2 ppb higher than Beech-Nut’s 85.47 ppb average that led to a recall and discontinuation of sales of the product. Gerber’s test results show two samples exceeding FDA’s current 100 ppb inorganic arsenic limit, and many just below that level. Even the Gerber Rice Cereal that tested lowest in inorganic arsenic contained four times the limit on inorganic arsenic proposed in the Baby Food Safety Act. [emphasis mine]

How protective is "more protective"?

Not only were most samples below the legal limit, the authors evaluated them against standards from a piece of pending legislation, which would set a new maximum of 15 ppb for inorganic arsenic. They gave no justification for this decision other than to write that the new rules “were developed in consultation with experts to be more protective of babies’ neurological development.” That kind of rhetoric spices up a press release, but parents need to know what “more protective” actually means for our children's health. Transporting my son in an M1 Abrams tank would be “more protective” than driving him in a sedan, but it would also be unnecessary.

Beech-Nut did indeed voluntarily recall one lot of its rice-based cereals. But as the FDA reported at the time, that decision was “a result of a routine sampling program by the State of Alaska.” More importantly, the agency noted:

No illnesses related to these product codes have been reported to date, and no other production dates or Beech-Nut products are affected by this recall.

Put another way, the regulatory system worked. The subcommittee alleged that this incident was evidence that “Beech-Nut was knowingly harming babies,” which is clearly incorrect given the FDA's account above.

Baby food isn't toxic

The subcommittee's analyses of lead and cadmium were even more misleading. For example, “There is no federal standard for lead in baby food,” the report claimed, but this is simply incorrect. The FDA sets a maximum daily intake for lead using a standard known as the Interim Reference Level (IRL), which is set at three micrograms (a microgram is one-millionth of a gram) per day for children. As the agency notes on its website:

In determining the IRL, the FDA takes into account the amount of a particular food a person would need to consume daily, as well as other factors, that would result in blood lead levels of 5 ug/dL, the level at which the CDC recommends clinical monitoring of lead exposure in children … These levels ... are set nearly ten-times less than the actual amount of lead intake from food that would be required to reach the CDC’s blood reference level [my emphasis].

Moreover, the FDA publishes regular updates to its decades-old Total Diet Study (TDS), one of the goals being to monitor the levels of “contaminants (e.g., cadmium and lead) in foods commonly eaten by people in the U.S.” A 2019 agency study showed that children's exposure to these two heavy metals has actually dropped in recent decades.

Children's exposure to cadmium “declined between 1980 and 2004–08,” the article reported, “while children’s lead exposure in the U.S. appears to have declined dramatically between 1980 and 2004–08.” Cadmium exposure has likely remained constant since then, though “there may have been a further slight decline in children’s lower bound mean lead exposures between 2004–08 (0.11 µg/kg bw [body weight]/day for two y) and 2014–16 (0.08 µg/kg bw/day for 1–3 y).”

These results confirmed the conclusions of previous research. As I wrote in an ACSH story addressing another recent report on heavy metals in baby food, a 2016 study of both formula and solid food pointed out that while lead and cadmium can indeed pose a risk to children, only

3% [of] food exceeded FDA lead consumption limit in 300 cal …. Overall, the concentrations of lead and cadmium in the baby food samples are considered very low ….”

In a September 2021 article written for parents, the American Academy of Pediatrics got to the heart of the matter. While parents should, of course, “limit all heavy metal exposure,” the AAP wrote, “The low levels of heavy metals found in baby foods likely are a relatively small part of a child's overall toxic metal exposure risk.”

The FDA recently launched its Closer to Zero: Action Plan for Baby Foods in response to an earlier subcommittee investigation into heavy-metal tainted baby foods, agreeing that childhood exposure to potentially harmful substances should be “as low as possible.” But the agency also offered a gentle correction to lawmakers by pointing out that it does not allow dangerous products to remain on the market. We'll give FDA the last word:

Consumers should know that FDA scientists routinely monitor levels of toxic elements in baby foods … Firms and individuals who manufacture or sell food have a legal responsibility under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act to ensure the safety of their products ... If the FDA finds that a product violates the law, the agency takes steps to stop the product from being imported, takes court action to stop its sale or recalls it if it is in the domestic market.