baby eating food

The Food and Drug Administration announced plans aimed at limiting the amount of heavy metals, such as lead and arsenic, in baby food. But consumer advocates said it was unclear how effective the effort would be without further details.  

The FDA announcement follows a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee report in February that called attention to startlingly high levels of these metals in some foods made by a variety of baby food manufacturers.

The FDA said it issued a letter to baby food manufacturers, reminding them that they have a responsibility to consider the hazards of toxic elements such as lead and arsenic in their products. 

The FDA also plans “soon” to take steps to reduce these metals in baby food, according to a statement by acting FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock and Susan Mayne, director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.

These steps include identifying what level of metals could trigger enforcement action by the FDA. The agency also plans to conduct more inspections and do more sampling of these products, the statement said.

Experts at Consumer Reports and other organizations say that without more details, it’s hard to know how much the FDA’s actions will make a difference. With the presence of these metals largely unregulated now, it will take dramatic steps by the FDA to meaningfully protect kids. 

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“Announcing that a plan is being developed is no substitute for meaningful action that establishes strong standards to protect vulnerable infants and toddlers from arsenic, lead, and other dangerous heavy metals in children’s food,” says Brian Ronholm, director of food policy at Consumer Reports.

Jane Houlihan, research director at Healthy Babies Bright Futures, a national alliance of scientists and child health advocacy organizations, says the FDA needs to announce what the limits for metals in food will be, and when the agency will put new regulations into place. 

“Is this announcement a prelude to the significant FDA actions needed to reduce babies’ exposures to heavy metals in baby food?” Houlihan says. “That remains to be seen. We are hoping that the plan promised in the coming weeks includes a timeline and health-based limits missing from today’s announcement. We believe these are essential elements for making meaningful progress.” 

High Levels of Metals in Baby Food

Experts have long been concerned about the high levels of metals in some foods for infants and toddlers, whose developing brains and bodies are particularly vulnerable to the toxic effects of heavy metal exposure.

Testing by Consumer Reports in 2018 found that two-thirds of 50 nationally distributed foods tested had worrisome levels of at least one type of heavy metal.

In 2019, HBBF tested 168 baby food products, finding that 95 percent had measurable levels of at least one heavy metal, finding higher levels especially in products with rice, fruit juice, carrots, and sweet potatoes.

For the February report, the House Oversight Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy asked baby food manufacturers to submit their own data on heavy metal testing. The companies that responded submitted data showing that some ingredients contained levels of heavy metals many times higher than health experts consider safe.

Companies often didn’t test finished products for heavy metal levels, and when they did, they often sold products even if tests showed high levels of substances such as arsenic.

For years, CR has called for FDA to set standards for arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury in all children’s food, with the ultimate goal of having no measurable levels of heavy metals in foods meant to be eaten by infants and toddlers.

In the meantime, parents shouldn’t panic.

“There are several things parents can do to minimize the heavy metal exposure their children may get from the foods they eat,” says James E. Rogers, PhD, director of food safety research and testing at CR.

“Two key steps are to limit the amount of rice-based foods and fruit juice in a child’s diet,” he added. “CR’s testing has found that rice, infant rice cereals, and other baby foods that contain rice may have concerning levels of inorganic arsenic [the most harmful type]. And some apple and grape juices we tested contained too much inorganic arsenic, lead, or both.” (See CR’s advice for parents for more tips.)