Arsenic, lead and other toxic metals that can harm brain development have been found in many popular baby foods, including organic brands.
The Oversight Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy requested internal data from seven companies in 2019 after a nonprofit called Healthy Babies Bright Futures published results of testing it did on baby foods, according to a congressional report released Thursday.
Four of the companies shared documents with the subcommittee, including: Gerber, Beech-Nut, Earth´s Best Organics maker Hain Celestial and Happy Family Organics maker Nurture Inc.
‘The Subcommittee is greatly concerned that their lack of cooperation might be obscuring the presence of even higher levels of toxic heavy metals in their baby food products than their competitors’ products,’ the report said.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration considers arsenic, lead, cadmium and mercury harmful to human health.
‘Children’s exposure to toxic heavy metals causes permanent decreases in IQ, diminished future economic productivity, and increased risk of future criminal and antisocial behavior,’ the report reads.
According to the FDA, the metals found have ‘no established health benefit’ and ‘lead to illness, impairment, and in high doses, death.’
‘Even low levels of harmful metals from individual food sources, can sometimes add up to a level of concern,’ according to the FDA.
Currently, there is no federal standard on these toxins, or warning to parents about them, the report reads.
Arsenic is ranked number one among substances present in the environment that pose the most significant potential threat to human health, according to health officials. Lead is number two and mercury is number three on the list, with cadmium placing seventh.
Not all the products were tested or tested with high levels of the heavy metals, the investigators found.
But all four of the companies who complied with the investigation sold products with amounts much higher than limits set for items like for drinking water by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Environmental Protection Agency.
The Oversight Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy, is led by Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, an Illinois Democrat.
‘The Subcommittee’s investigation revealed that manufacturers knowingly sell tainted baby food to unsuspecting parents, in spite of internal company test results showing high levels of toxic heavy metal, and without any warning labels whatsoever,’ Krishnamoorthi said in a statement.
Michael Hansen, a senior staff scientist with Consumer Reports, said these metals 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, he said.
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, he said.
Because babies’ brains are still developing, there is a lot of concern about how those metals could damage that development, Hansen said. By the time symptoms like behavioral problems show up, it can be difficult to trace them back to foods, he said.
Hansen said parents who are concerned should switch to unprocessed fruits and vegetables. The FDA also recommends feeding babies a variety of grain-based cereals, not just those made with rice.
Last August, the FDA finalized guidance for infant rice cereal, recommending it contain no more than 100 parts per billion of arsenic. 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.
The report found some instances where manufacturers tested ingredients but not final products, even though levels of toxic metals might be higher in the finished products. It also found instances where manufacturers set internal standards but still sold foods that exceeded them.
The subcommittee said it wants the FDA to set standards for the presence of heavy metals in baby foods. Manufacturers should be required to test finished products and publish the results, the subcommittee said in its report.
In a statement Thursday, the FDA said it takes exposure to toxic elements in the food supply very seriously. The agency said baby food makers have made progress in reducing arsenic in baby food since 2016, when it first proposed setting the 100 ppb guidance.
‘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,’ the agency said.
Campbell Soup Co. said it did respond to the subcommittee’s questions. In that submission, it noted that the FDA doesn’t have standards for heavy metals in baby food. But it said its testing shows that metals in its baby foods are within acceptable limits.
Walmart also said it reached out to the subcommittee, but made clear that any product testing would be managed by its suppliers.
Happy Family Organics said it was disappointed in the report, which it said didn´t make clear that metals and minerals are found in trace amounts in many foods.
A chart showing arsenic levels found in Hain ingredients and that they were accepted despite high levels
A chart showing arsenic levels found in Beech-Nut ingredients and that they were accepted despite high levels
A chart showing the names of Nurture’s products with high levels of lead found in them
A chart shows a summary of Nurture’s products with inorganic arsenic found in them
The company also said the test results it provided in 2019 don´t reflect all of the current products.
Earth´s Best Organics also said the report referenced outdated data. The brand said it removed brown rice from its products, changed other ingredients and expanded testing of finished products after a meeting with the FDA last year.
Beech-Nut said it is still reviewing the report, but assured parents its baby food is ‘safe and nutritious.’
A message seeking comment was left with Gerber.
Hansen said the FDA should require baby food companies to test the final products and make the results available, particularly for organic brands.
‘You can´t just allow the companies to do their own thing,’ he said.