Congressional Report Finds More Problems With Heavy Metals in Baby Food

Consumer Reports calls on baby food companies to suspend sales of infant rice cereals. In the meantime, caregivers shouldn't panic, given the wide range of options.

Baby eating rice cereal Photo: Getty Images

Baby foods produced by popular manufacturers continue to contain sometimes alarmingly high levels of heavy metals, including inorganic arsenic, lead, and cadmium, according to a new report released Sept. 29 by the House Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy.

Though it’s widely known that heavy metals can be found in some foods because of contaminated water and soil, the levels in baby food are of great concern. Exposure to these metals at an early age has been linked to lower IQs, behavior problems, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

This report is a follow-up to another one released in February by the same subcommittee. For that report, the subcommittee contacted seven leading baby food manufacturers to ask for internal data on heavy metal testing of the products they sell. 

Only four companies responded then, and the data they provided raised a number of concerns, including high levels of heavy metals in some products and the use of ingredients that exceed the companies’ internal standards for heavy metals. The data also showed that companies rarely test finished products for heavy metals, relying primarily on tests of ingredients, which consistently leads to underestimates of the levels of heavy metals in finished products.

In the newest report, the subcommittee has released data supplied by the three manufacturers that didn’t respond to the request for data for the initial report: Plum Organics (which was owned by Campbell when the first report was released but was sold to Sun-Maid in May 2021), and Sprout Foods, and Walmart. 

The September “report reveals that companies not only underreport the high levels of toxic content in their baby food but also knowingly keep toxic products on the market,” Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., chairman of the subcommittee, said in a statement.

On Oct. 20, CR advocates cited this report in a set of letters to several baby food companies calling for a suspension of the manufacturing and sale of infant rice cereal “until a more protective health standard for inorganic arsenic is implemented through updated regulations or voluntary measures.”

“Removing these products from the market would be the most effective approach to address this issue and provide assurances to parents and caregivers,” Brian Ronholm, director of food policy at Consumer Reports, said in a statement.

Still, consumers shouldn’t panic, CR experts say, given the options available. For more information, see CR’s advice to caregivers on limiting children’s exposure to heavy metals.

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What the Report Found

Internal data from Plum Organics showed that more than half of its products contained more than 5 parts per billion of lead, the Food and Drug Administration’s limit for bottled water, with one tested product containing 73 ppb. Almost 40 percent of Plum Organics products exceed the FDA’s bottled water cadmium limit of 5 ppb. And all of Plum’s 19 tests of Super Puffs products found 200 to 470 ppb of total arsenic, a combined measure of organic and inorganic arsenic (the more harmful type).

More on Baby Food Safety

The FDA has set a 100 ppb limit for inorganic arsenic, the only limit the agency has for any food. While the Plum Organics products were below 100 ppb of inorganic arsenic, the levels still far exceeded the FDA’s 10 ppb limit for bottled water. “There is no safe level of heavy metals, so the goal should be to have no measurable levels of any heavy metal in baby and toddler foods,” says James E. Rogers, PhD, director of food safety research and testing at CR. 

Another finding: Although in 2012 Walmart reduced its internal limit for arsenic allowed in rice cereal, oatmeal cereal, and puffed grain finished products from 100 ppb to 23 ppb, the company reversed its decision in 2018, which the report describes as a “drastic retreat in safety standards.”

What’s more, according to the report, company testing for heavy metals is inadequate. Sprout tests its ingredients only once a year, and Walmart doesn’t test but instead relies on suppliers to self-certify. (For comparison, according to the report, Beech-Nut tested its ingredients 1,745 times in a three-year period.)

The subcommittee also evaluated the responses by two companies named in the initial report—Beech-Nut and Gerber—to the testing of their products by public health officials in Alaska. That testing resulted in a recall by Beech-Nut of certain lots of its Stage 1 Single Grain Rice cereals because they exceeded the FDA’s 100 ppb limit for inorganic arsenic in infant rice cereal. Beech-Nut also announced that it would stop selling infant rice cereal, citing concerns that it wouldn’t be able to consistently obtain rice flour well below the FDA’s limit and the company’s internal standards. But the report characterized Beech-Nut’s recall as too narrow because it didn’t recall other lots that the Alaska testing showed also exceeded that FDA limit.

Gerber issued no recall despite the tests finding several samples that exceeded the FDA limit. In an email to CR, an FDA spokesperson said the agency did not recommend a recall “because ​​testing by the Alaska State laboratory did not provide sufficient certainty that the inorganic arsenic level in the food sample exceeded the action level, among other factors.”

But CR’s experts believe a company recall was warranted. “What’s especially disturbing about the report’s findings is the industry’s dismissive approach toward ensuring the safety of baby food,” Ronholm says. “Between incomplete recalls, weakening their own standards, and the refusal to test finished products, these baby food manufacturers do not appear to be putting safety first. This report clearly demonstrates the need for the FDA to act quickly in publishing maximum limits for toxic heavy metals in baby food and requiring the industry to perform finished-product testing. The findings demonstrate that today’s rules and industry promises are woefully inadequate when it comes to safety.”

What the Companies Say

CR contacted the companies named in the report. Here are their responses.

Campbell: “While we sold the Plum business in May 2021, we continue to support the FDA’s efforts in setting clear and specific science-based federal standards to continue to ensure that food for all of our children is safe and nutritious.”

Plum’s new owners, Sun-Maid, told CR: “Our priority, first and foremost, is our consumers. Keeping their well-being top of mind, Sun-Maid conducted rigorous due diligence on the Plum Organics brand before our recent acquisition. We will thoroughly examine the updated report from the Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy and continue to work with the subcommittee—as well as the industry at large—to address these matters and ensure Plum Organics remains the very best food from the first bite. We remain confident in our ability to keep our consumers safe and maintain trust in Plum Organics.”

Beech-Nut: “Beech-Nut has taken a leadership role and is the first and only national brand to commit to being a fully rice-free brand across its full product portfolio. The assertion that Beech-Nut’s rice cereal recall was too narrow is incorrect. In addition to recalling the affected lots, Beech-Nut also proactively withdrew all Beech-Nut branded Single Grain Rice Cereal products from supermarket shelves. Further, Beech-Nut decided to exit the market for its branded infant rice products because it is concerned about being able to consistently obtain rice flour well below the FDA guidance level.”

Gerber: “The FDA made us aware of their contact from the State of Alaska about a sample of our rice cereal that tested slightly above the guidance level for inorganic arsenic set by the FDA, and was referenced in the report. The FDA retested the sample, was unable to confirm the result by Alaska and confirmed to Gerber that no action was needed. While the Subcommittee report notes proposed limits on specific heavy metals, those are based on proposed standards from the Baby Food Safety Act, which are not current law or regulation. All Gerber foods have and continue to meet all applicable guidelines and limits set by the FDA, the governing body for safety regulations in the food industry.”

Walmart: “We are committed to providing high-quality private-brand baby food products that are safe and nutritious. We have always required that our suppliers’ products meet the guidelines established by the FDA. Our specifications have always been aligned with or below the FDA requirements for naturally occurring elements and the FDA said in April that its testing shows that children ‘are not at an immediate health risk to exposure.’ We are encouraged the FDA launched a collaborative process to establish science-based standards for infant and baby foods and look forward to further guidance.”

What Caregivers Should Know

That high levels of heavy metals have been found in some baby food isn’t new, as testing by Consumer Reports and other organizations has found. But the latest subcommittee report shows that these problems persist despite the attention to the issue and calls for stricter regulations that have been spurred by previous reporting on the topic.

Heavy metals including arsenic, lead, cadmium, and mercury are naturally found on the planet, which can lead to absorption in food and water. But most that end up in foods come from water or soil that has been contaminated by pollution, manufacturing practices, or farming. Children also can absorb heavy metals from environmental sources, including paint and even the outdoor spaces they play in.

Because of these factors, kids are exposed to heavy metals every day. But what the report points out—and what testing by CR has shown—is that not all baby food contains problematic levels of heavy metals, meaning that safer products are feasible. In 2018, CR tested baby food and found that about one-third of the products contained lower levels of heavy metals than our level of concern. 

And CR experts say it’s important that caregivers not panic. They can take steps to limit exposure, like cutting back on foods known to contain high levels of heavy metals, such as rice, sweet potatoes, apple juice, and grape juice. (For more information, see CR’s advice to caregivers on limiting children’s exposure to heavy metals.)

Next Steps

Experts say the new report shows the need for further action to get heavy metals out of baby food.

Consumer Reports’ Oct. 20 letters to executives at Gerber, Hain Celestial, Happy Family Organics, Plum Organics, and Walmart asked the companies to respond by Nov. 5 to CR’s call to suspend sales of infant rice cereals. “These companies should follow the lead of Beech-Nut and suspend the manufacturing and sale of all infant rice cereals until a more protective health standard is in place,” CR’s Ronholm said. “Even low levels of inorganic arsenic can have adverse effects on cognitive development in young children. Infant rice cereal is responsible for more than half of all exposure to inorganic arsenic in infants and toddlers.”

The data in the September report—“combined with the companies’ failure to take preventive action to protect the most vulnerable consumers—lays bare the need for protective governmental limits on heavy metals in baby foods,” Healthy Babies Bright Futures, a national alliance of scientists and child health advocacy organizations, said in a statement.

After the subcommittee released its first report on heavy metals in baby food, the FDA announced a plan to set limits on the levels permitted in baby foods. While experts said any action was welcome, they criticized the timeline of the plan as too slow. According to a plan called Closer to Zero, the FDA would propose limits on lead and arsenic in 2022, finalizing the lead limit by April 2024 and the arsenic limit sometime after that. Limits on cadmium and mercury wouldn’t be proposed until at least April 2024.

In the new report, the subcommittee says the insufficient response to the Alaska tests of rice cereal shows the need for action to be taken sooner. 

The FDA should update the timelines and issue limits sooner for acceptable levels of heavy metals in baby food, the subcommittee recommended. The agency should also require companies to test finished products, not just ingredients, to get a better idea of the levels of heavy metals.

The FDA told CR in a statement that it’s aware of today’s report and plans to review its findings. It pointed to its Closer to Zero initiative as helping to reduce heavy metal exposure, and said that it was working on finalizing the action level for arsenic in apple juice (first proposed in 2013) and developing action levels for lead in juices and other foods. An agency spokesperson also said: “While we understand that people may want rapid changes, it is crucial that measures to limit toxic elements in foods do not have unintended consequences—like limiting access to foods that have significant nutritional benefits by making them unavailable or unaffordable for many families.”

The industry could also help rebuild trust by voluntarily adopting finished-product testing and phasing out ingredients that frequently test high in heavy metals, the report authors wrote.

CR’s experts agree, and say that this problem has persisted too long without significant change.

“Given CR’s own testing and the numbers we see in the report, companies in the baby food industry are at a critical crossroads, particularly when it comes to selling rice-based baby food,” says James Dickerson, CR’s chief scientific officer. “Either they should work diligently to reduce the amount of heavy metals found in rice-based baby food through better sourcing and analysis premanufacture, better oversight during manufacture, and better analysis of packaging and packaging practices postmanufacture, or they should take steps toward reducing toward zero the number of baby food products that they sell that are based on rice. The status quo is not tenable for caregivers or babies.”

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated with a section on the next steps to keep heavy metals out of baby food and includes additional comments from the Food and Drug Administration, Gerber, and Sun-Maid. It was updated again to include new CR actions in response to the report.

Head shot image of CRO Health editor Kevin Loria

Kevin Loria

I'm a science journalist who writes about health for Consumer Reports. I'm interested in finding the ways that people can transform their health for the better and in calling out the systems, companies, and policies that expose patients to unnecessary harm. As a dad, I spend most of my free time trying to keep up with a toddler, but I also enjoy exploring the outdoors whenever possible. Follow me on Twitter (@kevloria).