A congressional report found many of the products made by the country’s largest commercial baby food manufacturers contain significant levels of toxic heavy metals, including arsenic, lead, cadmium and mercury, which can endanger infant neurological development.
Gerber, Beech-Nut, HappyBABY (made by Nurture) and Earth’s Best Organic baby foods (made by Hain Celestial Group) complied with the committee’s request to submit internal testing documents.
Campbell Soup, which sells Plum Organics baby foods, Walmart (its private brand is Parent’s Choice) and Sprout Foods declined to cooperate, according to members of the subcommittee.
The committee said the findings show the need for more stringent regulation of commercial baby food, including FDA standards for heavy metals, as well as mandatory testing for heavy metals.
“Over the last decade advocates and scientists have brought this to the attention of the Food and Drug Administration,” subcommittee Chair Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.) told The Washington Post. “The FDA must set standards and regulate this industry much more closely, starting now. It’s shocking that parents are basically being completely left in the lurch by their government.”
The FDA said it was reviewing the findings.
Arsenic is ranked as No. 1 one among naturally occurring substances that pose a significant risk to human health, according to the Department of Health and Human Services’ Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Although there are no maximum arsenic levels established for baby food (except for infant rice cereal, where the maximum is 100 parts per billion inorganic arsenic), the FDA has set the maximum allowable levels in bottled water at 10 ppb of inorganic arsenic.
Although Hain typically only tested its ingredients, not finished products, documents show that the company used many ingredients in its baby foods with as much as 309 ppb of arsenic. The testing data shows that Hain used at least 24 ingredients that contained more than 100 ppb of arsenic.
Responding after publication, Hain spokeswoman Robin Shallow said, “Earth’s Best has consistently supported efforts to reduce naturally occurring heavy metals from our food supply.”
Lead is No. 2 on the ATSDR’s list of potential health threats. There is no federal standard for lead in baby food, but there is a growing consensus among health experts that lead levels in baby foods should not exceed 1 ppb. The American Academy for Pediatrics, the Environmental Defense Fund and Consumer Reports have all, in some form, called for a 1 ppb level in food and drinks that babies and children consume.
Beech-Nut used ingredients containing as much as 886.9 parts per billion of lead, according to the information supplied to the committee. It used many ingredients with high lead count, including 483 that contained over 5 ppb lead, 89 that contained over 15 ppb lead, and 57 that contained over 20 ppb lead.
“Beech-Nut established heavy metal testing standards 35 years ago, and we continuously review and strengthen them wherever possible,” said Jason Jacobs, vice president of food safety, quality and innovation. “We look forward to working with the FDA, in partnership with the Baby Food Council, on science-based standards that food suppliers can implement across our industry.”
In addition, Gerber used carrots containing as much as 87 ppb of cadmium and Nurture sold baby foods with as much as 10 ppb of mercury. And even when baby foods tested over companies’ internal limits for these heavy metals, they were sold anyway.
Gerber said it hasn’t seen the report and could not comment specifically on the findings.
“Exposure to these toxic heavy metals affects babies’ brain development and nervous system, it affects their behavior, permanently decreases their IQ and, if you want to boil it down to dollars, their lifetime earnings potential,” says Tom Neltner, chemicals policy director for the Environmental Defense Fund, which has worked on lead in food for 25 years.
The committee launched the investigation after learning of high levels of arsenic in some baby foods in a study by Healthy Babies Bright Futures, an alliance of nonprofit organizations aimed at measurably reducing babies’ exposure to toxic chemicals.
“What they did was take food off store shelves and test it. We said we should go straight to the companies and ask for their materials,” Krishnamoorthi said. “For the companies that didn’t participate, it raises the concern that they might possess information that indicates the toxic metals in their foods might be even higher than their competitors.”
He said the Trump administration was made aware of the risks that commercial baby foods could contain heavy metals during a private industry presentation to the FDA on Aug. 1, 2019, from Hain (Earth’s Best Organic), which revealed that corporate policies to test only ingredients, not final products, might not accurately represent the levels of toxic heavy metals in baby foods.
In all of the Hain baby foods tested, inorganic arsenic levels were between 28 percent and 93 percent higher in the finished products than just in ingredients alone.
“We are disappointed that the Subcommittee report examined outdated data and does not reflect our current practices. The report also inaccurately characterized a meeting with the FDA," Shallow said. She added that Hain took several steps after the meeting to reduce the levels of heavy metals in finished products, changing out ingredients such as brown rice and conducting additional testing of finished product before shipping.
“I’d hope that companies would start testing not only their ingredients but their finished products,” Krishnamoorthi said, “and I’d hope that companies then labeled their products to show the presence of these toxic ingredients, and would eventually phase them out.”
The bigger issue, he says, is that the FDA needs to establish legal standards for each of these heavy metals in baby foods.
“The FDA takes exposure to toxic elements in the food supply extremely seriously, especially when it comes to protecting the health and safety of the youngest and most vulnerable in the population,” the FDA wrote in a statement. “Toxic elements, like arsenic, are present in the environment and enter the food supply through soil, water or air. Because they cannot be completely removed, our goal is to reduce exposure to toxic elements in foods to the greatest extent feasible and we have been actively working on this issue using a risk-based approach to prioritize and target the agency’s efforts.”
Gerber, which is owned by Nestle, is the largest baby food company and one of the main brands available to low-income families that rely on Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) benefits. The data Gerber provided to the committee reveals that the company used rice flour very high in arsenic, carrots high in cadmium and a number of ingredients high in lead.
“As stated in our 2019 response to the congressional inquiry, the elements in question occur naturally in the soil and water in which crops are grown,” said Dana Stambaugh, a Gerber spokeswoman. “To minimize their presence, we take multiple steps including prioritizing growing locations based on climate and soil composition; approving fields before crops are planted based on soil testing; rotating crops according to best available science; and testing of produce, water and other ingredients.”
According to the report, Beech-Nut, one of Gerber’s major competitors, routinely used high-arsenic additives and ingredients containing up to 344 ppb cadmium.
“We work closely with our suppliers to identify the best farms and regions to procure the highest quality ingredients,” said Jacobs. “We test every delivery of fruits, vegetables, rice and other ingredients for up to 255 contaminants to confirm that every shipment meets our strict quality standards.”
Krishnamoorthi says that the Hain presentation to the FDA revealed that naturally occurring toxic heavy metals in soil or water may not be the only problem causing the unsafe levels of toxic heavy metals in baby foods. Baby food producers may be adding ingredients into their products, such as vitamin and mineral mixes, that contain high levels of toxic heavy metals.
The report also found high levels of lead, arsenic and cadmium in Happy Family Organics (Nurture) baby foods.
Chief executive Anne Laraway said that many of the results provided as part of the 2019 report were collected based on a small portion of their portfolio, “and are not representative generally of our entire range of products at-shelf today. Also, the data points include two outliers of high lead results, not replicable in our testing, but which we included for completeness and transparency. We hope that the report — which we have not seen — and those sharing the information would not insinuate to the public that there is a danger present.”
The European Union has set the maximum lead level in infant formula to 20 ppb. The test results of many of these baby foods and their ingredients far exceed that level. According to Krishnamoorthi, manufacturers’ internal standards permit dangerously high levels of toxic heavy metals, and this report reveals that manufacturers have often sold foods that exceeded even their own established levels.
Thomas Hushen, a spokesman for Campbell, pushed back against the committee’s statement that the company did not comply with a request for information, producing a letter to Krishnamoorthi dated Nov. 6, 2019, saying that in internal testing, each product was well within levels deemed acceptable by independent authorities.
“We fully cooperated with the House Oversight Subcommittee’s baby food review,” Hushen said in an email. “We responded quickly to their questions and never refused anything requested of us. We are surprised that the Subcommittee would suggest that Campbell was less than full partners in this mission. We welcomed the opportunity to work with the Subcommittee in 2019 — and continue to do so today.”
Randy Hargrove, senior director of national media relations for Walmart, says his company also responded to the subcommittee’s request last year in a letter, saying that any product testing would be managed by Walmart’s suppliers.
“We described the certification requirements for our private label manufacturers and explained that our private label baby food manufacturers must comply with all applicable laws and regulations, including those set by the FDA,” he said.
Sprout Foods did not respond to requests for comment.
“The FDA must step into the breach,” Krishnamoorthi said. He says this is the committee’s third baby-focused investigation. The other two examined car seat safety and talcum powder safety.
“We acknowledge that there is more work to be done,” the FDA said in a statement, “but the FDA reiterates its strong commitment to continue to reduce consumer exposure to toxic elements and other contaminants from food.”