FDA tells baby food makers to ‘get the lead out’

Photo (c) JGI Jamie Grill - Getty Images

The agency floats a plan to reduce lead content in food for infants

Baby food manufacturers obviously put a lot of emphasis on the healthy and nutritious aspects of their products. But what about harmful ingredients?

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has taken steps to rid baby food products of dangerous levels of lead. That’s right, lead.

“For more than 30 years, the FDA has been working to reduce exposure to lead, and other environmental contaminants, from foods,” said FDA Commissioner Dr. Robert M. Califf. “This work has resulted in a dramatic decline in lead exposure from foods since the mid-1980s.”

The FDA has announced new guidance for the industry to reduce exposure to lead in food marketed for babies under the age of two. The draft guidance is aimed at significantly reducing lead content. 

Califf says the action will result in setting the bar for lead exposure “closer to zero.” He says manufacturers have embraced the new standards.

27% reduction

“For babies and young children who eat the foods covered in today’s draft guidance, the FDA estimates that these action levels could result in as much as a 24% to 27% reduction in exposure to lead from these foods,” Califf said.

“That’s great,” said U.S. PIRG Education Fund Consumer Watchdog Teresa Murray. “But given everything physicians and scientists know about the irreversible damage caused when young children are exposed to toxic metals, why wasn’t this a priority long ago? And why did it take a kick in the pants from Congress?”

Murray notes that the FDA’s “closer to zero” plan was released a month after a House subcommittee released a report that showed that four of the seven largest baby food manufacturers had been selling baby food with potentially dangerous levels of toxic heavy metals. 

“The FDA estimates its new lead limits could reduce exposure to lead from these foods by 24% to 27%. Over what period of time?” Murray asked. “Babies don’t have time. Those of us with children know they grow up fast. The FDA should adopt and enforce the new limits as soon as possible.”

Food that’s covered by the guidance

Food covered in the FDA’s draft guidance includes processed foods, such as food packaged in jars, pouches, tubs and boxes and intended for babies and young children less than two years old. 

Under the guidance, lead would be limited to 10 parts per billion (ppb) for fruits, vegetables, mixtures, yogurts and custards/puddings and single-ingredient meats. Limits would be higher for vegetables and dry cereals.

Consumers may be surprised to learn that other manufactured food contain lead and other heavy metals. In December researchers at Consumer Reports (CR) reported finding cadmium and lead, two heavy metals, in the dark chocolate bars they tested. 

Consuming just small amounts of those metals on a regular basis could lead to health problems in both children and adults,” researchers said.

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