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Health and safety groups petition FDA to address heavy metals in baby foods

The groups say proposed standards and deadlines don’t do enough to protect children

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What started out as a lawsuit against baby food company Beech-Nut has mushroomed into an all-out campaign to get the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to pick up the pace with setting mandatory limits on levels of toxic heavy metals in baby food. 

More than 100 organizations -- ranging from pediatricians to environmental councils and 22 state learning disabilities associations -- wrote FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock expressing their collective concern that the current implementation date the agency established is too lax and doesn’t set firm enough standards.

Under the FDA’s proposal, final levels for some metals may not be set until 2024, and deadlines have not been proposed at all for two metals, mercury and cadmium. 

“While we share FDA’s commitment to reducing the presence of toxic metals in food consumed by children, we urge FDA to set clear and more urgent deadlines for action.” the group wrote. “Each day, 10,000 babies start eating solid food. If the FDA waits until 2024 or later to set final levels food companies must meet, millions of babies will be exposed to metals that threaten their health and development.”

U.S. Congress is also taking up the issue

In a separate effort, an investigation by a House subcommittee found that several brands of widely sold baby foods were tainted with dangerous levels of toxic heavy metals, including arsenic, lead, cadmium, and mercury.

Those findings led Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) and Reps. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-IL), and Tony Cárdenas (D-CA) to introduce legislation called the Baby Food Safety Act of 2021. If approved, the Act would provide a temporary fix by setting rigorous interim limits for toxic metals in baby food within one year.

The legislation also calls for a formal review every five years to reevaluate if the agreed-upon levels of heavy metals should be lowered further.

How do heavy metals get into baby food?

If you’re a parent, you may be asking yourself how toxic chemicals get into baby food in the first place. And, more importantly, what can be done to prevent it? ConsumerAffairs asked Clean Label Project Executive Director Jackie Bowen that very question.

“It is important to recognize the impact that our societal choices have on both the environment and our health. Although some heavy metals are naturally occurring in the earth’s crust, human causes including mining, fracking, industrial agriculture, and wastewater used for irrigation exacerbate the problem,” Bowen explained.

“These heavy metals — in the form of pollution — end up in the air, the water, and the soil. Plants have no choice but to suck up the contaminants in the ground. If ingredient sources go unchecked by baby food brands, these contaminated plants will end up in the finished products being consumed by the most vulnerable populations.”

Charlotte Brody, the national director for Healthy Babies Bright Future and a registered nurse, also raised a concerning historical perspective. 

“Lead was banned in paint and gasoline in the U.S. almost 50 years ago. So parents are right to be asking why the FDA needs three years to set an action level for lead in baby food,” she told ConsumerAffairs.

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