A new study by Clean Label Project, a national non-profit that analyzes consumer products for the purposes of public education, found that more than 25 percent of 500 infant formulas and baby foods it tested exceed state or federal safety guidelines. Lead, arsenic, mercury, bisphenol A (BPA), and acrylamide were among the contaminants.
“The World Health Organization reports that during the first 1,000 days of life, the foundation of optimal health, growth, and neurodevelopment across the entire lifespan are established, making the findings particularly alarming,” says Jaclyn Bowen, MPH, MS, executive director, Clean Label Project, Denver, Colo.
The contamination found in the study was higher than anticipated, says Sean Callan, PhD, director of operations and quality for Denver, Colo.-based Ellipse Analytics, the third-party analytical chemistry laboratory that performed the testing. In fact, more than 35 percent of baby food products tested contained quantifiable levels of lead, a statistic more than 40 percent higher than the recent Environmental Defense Fund summary report of products published in June. “This is the most concerning finding because lead, in addition to being linked to cancer, impairs brain function,” he says. “Early life exposure to lead has been linked to a decline in IQ and other neurological contaminants.”
Furthermore, one in 10 tested products contained acrylamide, a neurotoxin and carcinogen. And over half of the products contained some level of arsenic. As many as one-third of the more than 500 products tested exceeded at least one state or federal guidance level.
While BPA was found in less than 5 percent of tested samples, the most interesting finding was that in 60 percent of BPA cases, the product in question made an on-pack claim of being BPA-free, Dr. Callan reports. BPA is an endocrine disrupter, meaning that it alters hormone levels.
Why Contamination Occurs
Bowen surmises that baby food products contain contaminants because heavy metals naturally occur in the environment. They may also be introduced into the environment as a result of human activity. Some foods pick up heavy metals during growth and as a result of harvesting, storage, and handling and manufacturing activities.
BPA, for example, has been used in a variety of plastic products since the 1960s. It is also present in the epoxy inner coating of many metal containers. “The main concern for exposure is based on the tendency of some acidic foods to leach BPA from the food packaging into the food,” Bowen says. “Heating food in plastic containers containing BPA may also result in BPA leaking into food.”
To prevent future contamination, the onus is on brands to do their own proactive due diligence before sourcing ingredients, Bowen says. Brands need to rethink product specifications on the maximum thresholds of contaminants such as heavy metals. Brands also need to consider whether their supplier should administer confirmation testing or if they will assume the time and expense of performing testing.
Furthermore, Bowen points out that it is especially critical to use a third-party analytical chemistry laboratory with very sensitive levels of detection to perform testing. If instrumentation doesn’t get into the single digit parts per billion (the threshold limits established by state guidelines like the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment), then test results won’t detect a contaminant and give brands a false sense of security. For brands that don’t have direct oversight of the sourcing, including brands that use co-packers, she recommends implementing strict quality assurance and control methods.
Bowen also says that strict supplier assurance programs and product specifications are needed; these elements need to be incorporated into Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point plans.