Jonathan Sharp

Iin 2019 the non-profit Healthy Baby Bright Futures released a study on the composition of baby food. The results were alarming given that of the samples they tested, only 5% were found to be pure. The remaining 95% of products tested contained significant traces of one or more toxic heavy metals.

These relatively figures have been confirmed congressional report from the Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy in February 2021.

Hazardous amounts of lead, cadmium, mercury, and inorganic arsenic have been found in several products from leading US baby food manufacturers. These heavy metals do not have safe exposure levels and are known neurotoxins that lead to IQ decline and cognitive impairment.

The subcommittee’s investigation focused on seven major manufacturers, requesting internal data on policies and testing results.

Hain, Nurture, Beech-Nut and Gerber complied with the Congressional request. Sprout, Walmart and Campbell refused to cooperate, raising suspicions that they may be hiding evidence of higher concentrations of toxic metals in their products.

Their reluctance to share information is not surprising, given the elevated levels of heavy metals in the products of companies that provided internal data.

Mercury was 5 times safer in both ingredients and finished products, cadmium was 69 times safer, arsenic was 91 times safer, and lead was 177 times higher.

Poor quality testing methods and standards used by manufacturers are also a concern. Beech-Nut used high arsenic supplements, Hain only tested ingredients, Nurture knowingly marketed products despite heavy metal test results, and most companies rarely, if ever, tested for mercury.

These harmful elements in baby food pose a significant risk of toxic effects to vulnerable infants.

Due to higher nutrient intake and a less developed filtration and immune system, cadmium, lead, arsenic, and mercury accumulate in tissues and act as neurotoxins over time. Several studies showed a significant correlation between heavy metal exposure and the development of autism spectrum disorders.

Following the public disclosure of these facts, the industry’s reaction was seen as tentative at best. While Beech-Nut decided to leave the market indefinitely and recalled some of its contaminated products, Gerber was hesitant to do the same.

The lack of interest on the part of manufacturers to promptly address these issues has attracted the attention of the FDA.

Taking note of the subcommittee’s disturbing findings, the Food and Drug Administration initiated Closer to Zero Action Plan in April 2021. The FDA’s four-step strategy aims to gradually reduce heavy metals in baby foods, with actionable plans for 2024 or beyond.

While the intentions and goals of the plan are commendable, it has also been criticized for its lack of urgency and redundant steps. More precisely, the first two steps, concerning data evaluation and development of action levels, are unnecessary given the available data provided by authoritative sources.

Priority should be given to the last two steps, focusing on practicality and the implementation of effective measures. This will ensure higher productivity by setting intermediate action levels for heavy metals that manufacturers must comply with through 2024.

In September 2021, the Subcommittee published updated sequel to their original report. As for the FDA’s plan, the authors of the report note that the agency should speed up the process by setting definitive heavy metal content standards and requiring manufacturers to test end products.

The FDA has placed only one limit on heavy metal content in baby food, which is arsenic in baby rice cereals at 100 ppb (parts per billion). It barely regulates one detrimental element out of four in a narrow subsection of the baby food market.

The lack of regulation allows manufacturers to forego relatively inexpensive testing that would ensure the safety of their products, apparently putting profit over ethics.

In search of a legislative solution, the head of the subcommittee, Congressman Raja Krishnamurthy, proposed Baby Food Safety Act of 2021. The bill will immediately establish temporary safety levels for mercury, lead, cadmium and arsenic.

The FDA will also monitor manufacturers’ compliance with the new standards and periodically review their test results to gradually reduce levels of toxic metals.

Until effective action is taken, baby food manufacturers have a responsibility to ensure that their products are safe and do not pose a risk of toxic exposure to intended consumers.

Ingredients must be obtained from land with a low concentration of heavy metals. Companies need to improve their hiring standards in order to retain reliable professionals. Keeping the premises clean should be a priority and requires the right staff to carry out such a diligent task.

Regular product quality testing ensures that the heavy metal content is maintained at acceptable levels. Finally, manufacturers should use clear labels that clearly state the ingredients of the product.

Jonathan Sharp is Chief Financial Officer at Environmental Litigation Group, PC, in Alabama.

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