Baby formula industry touts product benefits while concerns about lead and heavy metal contamination are overlooked

Photo (c) YsaL - Getty Images

New findings suggest that many baby foods contain heavy metals and other toxins

For parents of toddlers who have food allergies, or parents who simply want their kids to develop a healthier palette, the formula sold under the brand name “Peaceful Planet” may seem like the perfect choice.

Peaceful Planet Toddler Supreme, as the formula is called, is designed for babies but not infants, the company’s marketing material says. The brand touts that it is vegan, gluten-free, nut-free, and sweetened with 15 varieties of fruits and organic vegetables.

“Imagine….,” a quirky label on the back of the can reads, “a planet where the soil is fertile, the air and water are clean, all are fed and the many human cultures celebrate their diversity, treating each other and all living things with mutual respect.”

It’s a vision that came crashing down last month, when California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said that the Peaceful Planet formula contains dangerous levels of lead.

In June, Becerra filed a lawsuit against Nutraceutical, a corporation that was sold to a private equity firm for $446 million last year and counts Peaceful Planet among its brands. His suit also goes after a small, California-based company called Graceleigh that sells a goat milk formula under the brand name Sammy’s Milk.

According to the California Attorney General, environmental tests done on both products detected lead, a known neurotoxin that is especially harmful to young children.

"These levels are high enough to pose a threat to a child’s health, especially since toddler’s consume formula on a daily basis," Becerra, joined on stage by two doctors, said at a news conference last month.

For now, both formula companies have agreed to stop selling their products in California, but not elsewhere. Nutraceutical released a statement online vouching for the safety of the Peaceful Planet formula, but it did not return inquiries from ConsumerAffairs.

"The reason that we are still selling freely [outside of California], and the FDA knows full well what's going on, is because of the dosage amount. Knowing that per serving, we are absolutely fine and within limits,” Erin Hendricks, the founder and operator of Graceleigh, tells ConsumerAffairs.

Hendricks also said that California’s environmental laws should not apply to her business because she employs less than ten people. “We are a one person company that is not subject to the Prop 65 requirements,” she added via email.

Jackie Bowen, a food safety scientist who published her own study evaluating toxins in baby food last year, has a different explanation for why products that are now banned under California laws can be sold freely everywhere.

Bowen argues that federal laws do not go far enough to protect babies from environmental contaminants in their food. “The thing that's the kicker is that it was only recalled in the state of California,” she tells ConsumerAffairs.

Researchers vs. formula makers

The Trump administration's recent decision to weigh into the formula vs. breastfeeding debate is only the latest move in the decades-long showdown pitting public health researchers against formula makers.

Armed with years of research indicating that breast milk is the healthiest choice for infants, the United Nations recently crafted a resolution meant to encourage women worldwide to choose breast milk over infant formula whenever possible.

But the resolution was almost derailed, according to a report published this month by the New York Times, when United States officials went to bat for the infant formula lobby and pressured the government of Ecuador to drop its support.

(According to the Times report, Abbott Laboratories, one of the biggest players in the infant formula industry, declined to make a comment, while Nestle, another top-selling formula maker, distanced itself from the lobbying effort).

Trump himself later responded with one of his signature criticisms of the newspaper’s reporting via Twitter. "The US strongly supports breast feeding but we don't believe women should be denied access to formula,” he said. “Many women need this option because of malnutrition and poverty."

It’s a statement that shows little understanding about the harmful effects that infant formula has had on countries with high malnutrition and poverty rates, experts responded.

Another potential disaster

In the 1970s, Nestle led an aggressive marketing campaign focused on baby formula in third-world countries. Its advertising convinced some women that its formula was more nutritious than their own breast milk, researchers later found. Without access to clean water or enough of the product, the formula-only diet proved fatal to infants in poor nations, leading activists to launch a boycott of Nestle several years later.

In response to the controversy decades ago, the United Nations enacted strict international regulations over the marketing of infant formulas, which Nestle and other companies now say they carefully follow. The regulations, among other rules, ban formula sellers from marketing their products as  superior to breast milk.

But those rules only apply to infant formula products -- if a formula claims to be designed for toddlers, for instance, it currently falls into a grey area. A United Nations committee is currently debating whether toddler formula should be regulated in the same way that infant formula is; a final decision is expected to be made in November.

Once again, the international public health community will have to face off against United States officials, who reportedly plan to argue that toddler formula should simply be labeled “food” -- with no special considerations about its young consumers necessary.

“That will leave the door open for all countries to [label] these products as non-breast milk substitutes, so they will get advertised on TV — and they look just like the infant formula,” Elizabeth Zehner, project director for Helen Keller International’s child feeding project, told

Advocates interviewed by the site worried that such advertising could lead to another public health disaster mirroring the one linked decades ago to infant formula.

Concerns over heavy metals

Erin Hendricks says that she founded the company Graceleigh 11 years ago to help other mothers who have difficulty breastfeeding. Her Sammy’s Milk website touts that her product is gluten-free, non-GMO, and made from free-range goat milk.

Sammy’s Milk first fell into the crosshairs of health officials in 2016, when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) determined that the product was being marketed as an infant formula. As such, the company failed to test its formula for the presence of Cronobacter, a bacteria that can be fatal to infants.

No illnesses were linked to Sammy's Milk, the FDA explained, but simply failing to test for the bacteria as a precaution violated federal regulations regarding infant formula. Sammy’s Milk quickly agreed to a full recall.  

Last March, Hendricks posted a notice online thanking the FDA for its “wonderful feedback” and announced that she had adjusted the product’s label. The product is now marketed as “Sammy’s Milk free-range goat milk toddler formula” is  “back and better than ever,” she announced.

Generally speaking, the FDA “does an effective job” when it comes to looking for dangerous bacteria in foods, explains Jackie Bowen, the food safety scientist who screens foods for environmental toxins independently.

“What you don't hear at the federal level is the effects of known toxins and carcinogens like heavy metals,” she says.

That may be changing as California and independent researchers push the feds to go further. In June, the Sammy’s Milk and Peaceful Planet formulas faced renewed scrutiny after the California Attorney General’s office said that both brands had dangerous amounts of lead.

The California AG’s office said it found 13 to 15 times the maximum allowable level of lead in the formulas under California law. What’s more, the products even exceeded the weaker FDA guidelines, according to California officials.

According to the state’s figures, “the levels of lead rivaled levels of those we saw in the Flint tragedy,” Bowen tells Consumer Affairs.

Many baby foods found to contain lead and other metals

Last year, Bowen launched her own investigation into baby food through her nonprofit, the Clean Label Project. “We wanted to see, besides all the marketing, what's actually in this stuff?”  she says.

Her nonprofit used Nielsen and Amazon data to determine what the 530 best-selling baby food products are in the United States and then hired a lab to test each one. The subsequent report found that a whopping 36% of the baby food products tested positive for lead. Her group also tested the foods for numerous other heavy metals and found that 65% of products tested positive for arsenic, 68% for cadmium and 10% for acrylamide.

Some of the nation's most well-known brands, such as Gerber, Enfamil, Nestle, and Abbott tested positive for the toxins. (The brands predictably disputed Bowen’s findings).

Bowen says she also found a wide variation between different formulas produced by the same brands -- Enfamil, for instance, had products that landed in both the “top five” and “bottom five” list under the Clean Label Project’s rating system.

The formula that received the worst grade in the Clean Label Project report was Peaceful Planet -- one of the two formulas that was also found to high levels of lead by the California AG’s office. (Sammy’s Milk, the other company getting sued by California, was not evaluated by Bowen’s group).

“In no way do I think that brands are malevolently including these ingredients,” Bowen says. She links the contamination to industrial sources like run-off from pesticide-intensive agriculture.

But if food companies can screen products for harmful bacteria, they should be able to do the same for environmental contaminants, she argues.

“Because they're not screening for it, they're showing up in the finished product,” Bowens says. “Because they're not regulated, they're ending up on store shelves.”

No safe level for children

Hendricks, the woman who sells Sammy’s Milk, says her own testing shows that her products comply with California’s laws. But she declined to share with ConsumerAffairs the raw test results, the name of the food safety lab that conducted the testing, or the exact levels of lead that they may or may not have found.

While acknowledging a possible “natural spike in lead” in her toddler formula, Hendricks says that the exact dosage that the AG’s office based their own findings on was never made clear to her.

“The general chatter on social media is that there is a good and true feeling about my company because of the care, love, and concern that went into formulating this product,” Hendricks says.

She also estimates that only 10 percent of her business came from California.

“We have continued internet sales as this is my livelihood and all lead seen in samples comes from the naturally occurring sources that make up this product, such as non-GMO safflower oil, wild fish oil, non-GMO molasses, and added vitamins,” Hendricks added via email. “Lead is naturally occurring at low levels in many foods; it is all a matter of dosage.”

Not according to pediatricians, who are beginning to agree that no level of lead is considered safe when kids are concerned. In 2016, as the Flint water crisis began receiving national attention, the American Academy of Pediatrics urged the FDA to issue tougher standards on lead exposure.

“We now know that there is no safe level of blood lead concentration for children,” the group said, “and the best ‘treatment’ for lead poisoning is to prevent any exposure before it happens.”

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