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CR supports congressional bill to protect infants and toddlers from toxic heavy metals and pathogens in food

Bill requires manufacturers to conduct routine testing of food for contaminants and report results to FDA upon request

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Consumer Reports is endorsing the Improving Newborns Food and Nutrition Testing Safety Act of 2023, a bill introduced today by Representative Emilia Sykes (OH) that aims to protect infants and children from toxic heavy metals and other contaminants in food. The bill is being introduced in the wake of recent research finding concerning levels of heavy metals in baby food and the crisis triggered when infant formula from a major manufacturer was found contaminated with Cronobacter pathogen.

“Parents shouldn’t have to worry that their young children could become sick or develop serious health problems because of toxic heavy metals or dangerous pathogens in their food,” said Brian Ronholm, director of food policy at Consumer Reports. “Unfortunately, we’ve learned that contaminants commonly found in some baby food can pose a serious threat to young children. This bill will help keep babies safe and healthy by strengthening the FDA’s ability to hold manufacturers accountable for preventing dangerous contamination by requiring routine testing of their products.”

Exposure to even small amounts of heavy metals at an early age may increase the risk of several health problems, especially lower IQ and behavior problems, and has been linked to autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Cronobacter contamination of infant formula produced at an Abbott plant in 2021 killed two children and triggered an eventual recall and led to a national shortage of the product. Infant formula tainted with Cronobacter can result in infections that cause severe cases of meningitis and irreparable brain damage.

Under the bill, manufacturers of infant and toddler food would be required to test a representative sample of their products for lead, cadmium, mercury and arsenic at least once per quarter and maintain those records for at least two years. In addition, manufacturers of infant formula would be required to test their products for environmental pathogens, specifically Cronobacter and Salmonella. Manufacturers would be required to make those test results available to the FDA upon request, without the need for a physical inspection

Infant formula makers would be required to inform the FDA if any of their products test positive for any environmental pathogen within 24 hours. The FDA would have to certify that the company has taken proper corrective action to address the contamination within 90 days.

In 2021, the House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy issued a report finding alarming levels of heavy metals in popular baby foods. The report noted that some manufacturers knew of the high levels of heavy metal contamination and still sold the products.

In 2018, Consumer Reports’ food safety team analyzed 50 nationally distributed packaged foods made for babies and toddlers, checking for cadmium, lead, mercury, and inorganic arsenic, the type most harmful to health.  CR’s tests found that about two-thirds (68 percent) had worrisome levels of at least one heavy metal. Fifteen of the foods would pose potential health risks to a child regularly eating just one serving or less per day. Snacks and products containing rice and/or sweet potatoes were particularly likely to have high levels of heavy metals.

In October, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed a landmark law requiring baby food manufacturers to test their products for dangerous heavy metals beginning in 2024 and to post the results on their web sites.

Michael McCauley, michael.mccauley@consumer.org