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FDA’s draft guidance on limiting lead in baby food is encouraging first step, but more needs to be done

Consumer Reports calls on FDA to strengthen limits to better protect vulnerable babies and young children from toxic lead in food

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s proposed limits on lead in processed food for babies and young children is an encouraging first step, but stricter limits are needed to protect this vulnerable population, according to Consumer Reports. CR is calling on the FDA to strengthen the proposed limits as it finalizes the standard in the coming months.

“We’re encouraged that the FDA has proposed these new standards, but clearly more needs to be done to limit exposure to toxic lead and protect babies and young children,” said Brian Ronholm, director of food policy for Consumers Reports. “The FDA should set strict limits on so-called baby junk food – grain-based snacks such as puffs, rusks, and wafers – since those foods typically contain the highest levels of lead.”

The FDA did not propose limits for grain-based snacks. Under the FDA’s draft guidance announced today, the agency is proposing the following action levels for lead in processed foods for babies and small children: 10 parts per billion (ppb) for fruits, vegetables (excluding single-ingredient root vegetables), mixtures (including grain and meat-based mixtures, yogurts, custards/puddings and single-ingredient meats); 20 ppb for root vegetables (single ingredient); and 20 ppb for dry cereals.

“It appears that the proposed standards were set based more on current industry feasibility to achieve the limits and not solely on levels that would best protect public health,” said Ronholm.  “The FDA should be encouraging industry to work harder to reduce hazardous lead and other heavy metals in baby food given how vulnerable young children are to toxic exposure. We look forward to working with the FDA to build on this proposal and gradually lower and eventually eliminate toxic heavy metals in baby food.”

In 2018, Consumer Reports analyzed 50 nationally distributed packaged foods made for babies and toddlers, checking for lead and other heavy metals considered to be the most harmful to human health. About two-thirds of the products (34) contained concerning levels of lead, cadmium and/or inorganic arsenic; 15 of them would pose a risk to a child who ate one serving or less per day. CR found that snacks and products containing rice and/or sweet potatoes were particularly likely to have high levels of heavy metals.

Exposure to even small amounts of heavy metals, including lead, at an early age may increase the risk of several health problems, especially lower IQ and behavior problems, and have been linked to autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. A 2018 study in the journal Lancet Public Health suggests that even low levels of lead from food and other sources contribute to 400,000 deaths each year, more than half of them from cardiovascular disease.

Michael McCauley, michael.mccauley@consumer.org, 415-902-9537