WASHINGTON, D.C. – An FDA action plan announced today to reduce heavy metals in baby food is a positive development after years of inaction by the agency, but it’s unclear whether it will result in the kind of limits needed to protect children, according to Consumer Reports. For over a decade, CR has called on the FDA to establish strict limits given its own tests and research by others showing concerning levels of heavy metals in baby food that can pose serious health problems in children over time.
“Experts agree that there is no safe level of exposure to heavy metals, especially for children,” said Brian Ronholm, director of food policy at Consumer Reports. “It is encouraging that the FDA is beginning to develop a plan to address these hazards, but it’s too early to know whether the agency is prepared to set the kind of strict limits necessary to keep children safe. Congress should not wait for the FDA to act, and should move forward with legislation to protect children from toxic heavy metals that are all too common in popular baby foods.”
Under the action plan announced today, the FDA will evaluate the scientific basis for setting limits on heavy metals starting with arsenic and lead and propose limits based on that review. The FDA will then conduct a similar review for cadmium and mercury and propose limits for both.
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. The FDA has a limit of 100 parts per billion (ppb) of inorganic arsenic in baby rice cereals, but not for other baby foods, nor any limits for other heavy metals in foods made for young children.
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.
CR supports the Baby Food Safety Act of 2021, introduced in March by Representative Raja Krishnamoorthi, along with Senators Amy Klobuchar and Tammy Duckworth, which requires the FDA to establish separate limits for baby cereal and all other baby foods for cadmium, inorganic arsenic, lead, and mercury.
The initial limits proposed in the bill are 15 ppb for inorganic arsenic in baby cereals and 10 ppb for other baby foods; 10 ppb for cadmium and lead in baby cereals, and 5 ppb for other baby foods; and 2 ppb of mercury for baby food and baby cereals. These levels would go into effect two years after the bill is signed into law.
The bill would require these levels to be lowered further within two years of the bill’s enactment, and lowered to “levels protective of infant and toddler neurological development, taking into account the most sensitive testing available” within three years.
Consumer Reports advises parents to talk to their pediatrician if they are concerned about potential exposure. Consuming these foods doesn’t guarantee that a child will develop health problems, but it may increase that risk. CR recommends a number of steps parents can take to reduce heavy metals exposure, including serving their children a broad array of healthful whole foods; limiting intake of infant rice cereal and packaged snacks and being conscious of intake of fruit juices; and choosing rice that generally contains less inorganic arsenic.