Levels of toxic metals found in baby food brands, congressional report finds

We are bombarded daily by toxins in our environment as well as our food supply, and as a result, our health and well-being suffer. And, although this onslaught is devastating to human health at all ages, in babies and children, toxic heavy metals can cause serious and often irreversible damage to brain development, reports say.

According to a report by PBS New Hour, a congressional investigation has found levels of arsenic, lead and other toxic metals in many popular baby foods, including organic brands.

PBS cited a report released Thursday by a U.S. House Subcommittee, which stated that in 2019 it had requested internal data from seven companies, including Walmart, after the results of tests done on baby foods – performed by a nonprofit called Healthy Babies Bright Futures – were published.

Of those seven companies, the subcommittee said that four responded.

“Gerber, Beech-Nut, Earth’s Best Organics maker Hain Celestial and Happy Family Organics maker Nurture Inc. – shared documents,” while “Walmart, Sprout Foods and Campbell Soup Co., which makes Plum Organics baby food, didn’t cooperate,” the subcommittee stated.

PBS cited Michael Hansen, a senior staff scientist with Consumer Reports, who explained that metals the U.S. Food and Drug Administration considers harmful to human health – such as arsenic, lead, cadmium and mercury – “can remain in the environment for decades from past pesticide and herbicide use.”

“Toxic metals might be more common in baby foods because of the vitamins and minerals added to those foods during processing,” Hansen said.

Hansen added, “Rice, a common ingredient in baby foods, also tends to have high levels of arsenic. Rice is grown in water, and arsenic from the soil dissolves when it comes in contact with water.”

Hansen explained that because babies’ brains are still developing, how those metals could damage that development is a big concern. He further explained that when symptoms like behavioral problems eventually show up, tracing them back to foods can be difficult, PBS cited.

PBS further cited Hansen who suggested concerned parents “should switch to unprocessed fruits and vegetables.”

PBS cited a recommendation by the FDA suggesting babies be fed a “variety of grain-based cereals, not just those made with rice.”

Finalized last August, the FDA’s guideline for infant rice cereal recommended it contain no more than 100 parts per billion of arsenic, PBS reported.

In comparison to the FDA’s guideline, the subcommittee’s report said “Beech-Nut used some ingredients that tested as high as 913 parts per billion for arsenic, while Earth’s Best Organics used ingredients testing as high as 309 parts per billion for arsenic,” PBS reported.

In some instances, the subcommittee found that rather than test the final products, some manufacturers tested only ingredients – despite levels of toxic metals being higher in the finished products. PBS said the subcommittee also “found instances where manufacturers set internal standards but still sold foods that exceeded them.”

PBS cited the subcommittee, which said in its report that “manufacturers should be required to test finished products and publish the results.” Led by Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, an Illinois Democrat, the subcommittee said it “wants the FDA to set standards for the presence of heavy metals in baby foods.”

PBS cited the FDA, who said in a statement Thursday, that “it takes exposure to toxic elements in the food supply very seriously.” further stating that “baby food makers have made progress in reducing arsenic in baby food since 2016, when it first proposed setting the 100 ppb guidance.”

The FDA said, “We acknowledge that there is more work to be done, but the FDA reiterates its strong commitment to continue to reduce consumer exposure to toxic elements and other contaminants,” PBS cited.

Here’s what some companies had to say.

According to PBS, Campbell Soup Co. said “it did respond to the subcommittee’s questions,” noting in that submission that “the FDA doesn’t have standards for heavy metals in baby food,” but stating that “its testing shows that metals in its baby foods are within acceptable limits.”

Walmart also said it “reached out to the subcommittee,” PBS reported, making clear that “any product testing would be managed by its suppliers.”

Happy Family Organics said it was disappointed in the subcommittee report, which it said “didn’t make clear that metals and minerals are found in trace amounts in many foods,” adding that “the test results it provided in 2019 don’t reflect all of the current products.”

PBS reported that Earth’s Best Organics responded similarly, saying the “report referenced outdated data.” The brand said that following a meeting with the FDA last year, “it removed brown rice from its products, changed other ingredients and expanded testing of finished products,” PBS cited.

PBS cited Beech-Nut, which said “it is still reviewing the report,” but assured parents its baby food is “safe and nutritious.”

A message was left with Gerber, seeking comment, PBS noted.

PBS again cited Hansen who said, “You can’t just allow the companies to do their own thing,” explaining that the FDA should “require baby food companies to test the final products and make the results available, particularly for organic brands.”

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