A congressional investigation by the House Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy discovered toxic heavy metals, including arsenic, in popular baby foods Gerber, Beech-Nut, HappyBABY and Earth’s Best Organic, and called on federal regulators to set stricter standards on the food manufacturers.
“Baby food manufacturers hold a special position of public trust. But consumers mistakenly believe that these companies would not sell unsafe products,” Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.) chairman of the subcommittee, said in a statement. “The subcommittee’s staff report found that these manufacturers knowingly sell baby food containing high levels of toxic heavy metals. I hope companies will commit to making safer baby foods. Regardless, it’s time that we develop much better standards for the sake of future generations.”
Robert Durkin, counsel for Arnall Golden Gregory and former acting director and deputy director of the office of dietary supplement programs in FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, notes the report clearly shows that the potential, if not likelihood, exists for babies to be ingesting dangerous levels of these contaminants. “It is entirely possible that a careful examination of this information could establish that the companies in question knew, or should have known, that they were putting dangerous, adulterated products on the market,” he tells Food Quality & Safety.
FDA has declared that inorganic arsenic, lead, cadmium, and mercury are dangerous, particularly to infants and children, and this past August finalized new guidance to the industry, setting an action level of 100 parts per billion inorganic arsenic in infant rice cereal.
However, FDA doesn’t set limits on these other metals in baby food. The reasoning, Durkin says, is that although there is information available that describes the risks presented by various toxic elements, there is not always enough data to determine the relationship of that risk to a specific dose or dietary intake of what is toxic.
“In the case of inorganic arsenic, the FDA had years’ worth of data, from at least 2011, that help define the relationship between the daily intake or dose of inorganic arsenic and the risks it presented when present in rich cereal that was feed to babies,” he says. “The data FDA had also showed that regulated industry had the means to achieve products that would consistently meet an upper limit of 100 ppb. Essentially, FDA was able to relate a dose of inorganic arsenic present in rice cereal to a risk it presented to babies that ate it.”
Under the law as it exists now, Durkin adds, if a manufacturer is aware of a hazard associated with their product, they are required to put processes in place to monitor for the risk and to prevent it from occurring. “Moving forward, there is no excuse for this to not happen with toxic elements in baby food. I would expect that FDA gets involved with baby food manufacturers concerning the wholesomeness of their products and to be sure that everything that can be done is being done to ensure baby food contains the lowest achievable amount of toxic elements.”
FDA says it is reviewing the report’s findings and that it takes exposure to toxic elements in the food supply extremely seriously, especially when it comes to children. According to Reuters, since the report was released, several proposed class-action lawsuits have been filed on behalf of consumers who have purchased baby food.