FDA Proposes Limits on Lead in Baby Food

On Tuesday, the Food and Drug Administration proposed maximum limits for the amount of lead in baby foods such as fruit and vegetable purees and dry cereal after years of studies revealed that many processed products contain levels known to pose a risk of neurological and developmental disabilities.

The agency issued draft guide, which would not be mandatory for food manufacturers to comply with. The guidelines, if adopted, would allow the agency to take enforcement action against companies that produce food exceeding the new limits.

“This is a really important advance for babies,” said Scott Faber, vice president of public affairs for the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit that has called on the agency to take action to remove metals from food. “We were grateful that the FDA and the Biden administration made reducing toxic metals in baby food a priority.”

The new restrictions targeting foods for children under 2 do not affect breakfast cereals, which have also been found to contain high levels of heavy metals. And they don’t limit other metals, such as cadmium, that the agency and many consumer groups have found in infant formula in previous years.

Jane Houlihan, research director of Healthy Babies Bright Futures, a nonprofit organization, called the guidelines disappointing. “It doesn’t go far enough to protect babies from neurodevelopmental damage from lead exposure,” she said. “Lead is in almost every baby food we’ve tested, and the action levels set by the FDA will not affect almost any of that food.”

She said the restrictions would apply to some of the highest levels they found, but more broadly appeared to “codify the status quo.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported there is no safe level of lead for children, who more easily absorb the heavy metal. The FDA proposed setting a lead level lower than

10 parts per billion in yogurt, fruit or vegetables and no more than 20 parts per billion in root vegetables and dry infant cereals.

The restrictions “will result in significant reductions in dietary lead exposure while ensuring the availability of nutritious foods,” according to an FDA news release. Relocation is part of the agency’s business Closer to zero initiative that aims to reduce young children’s exposure to toxins such as lead, arsenic, cadmium and mercury.

The changes “will lead to long-term, significant and sustainable reductions in food exposure to this contaminant,” said FDA Commissioner Dr. Robert M. Califf. allow the agency to identify foods as “adulterated” if they contain levels above the limits and then request a recall, confiscation of products or a recommendation for prosecution.

The agency estimated that the proposed levels could reduce dietary lead exposure for some young children by about 25 percent. According to to According to the FDA, low levels of lead exposure in children can lead to “learning disabilities, behavioral difficulties, and reduced IQ,” as well as immunologic and cardiovascular effects.

In 2020, the FDA set boundaries for inorganic arsenic in rice porridge for infants and in April last year suggested maximum lead levels in juice.

In comments submitted to the FDA about her broader plan, Gerber wrote in 2021 that reducing the toxins is difficult because plants absorb them from the soil as they grow.

“Actions that remove baby foods from the diet, whether intentional or not, do not change exposure if those foods are replaced with other sources of the same fruits, vegetables, and grains that are prone to heavy metals,” it says the company.

A Gerber spokeswoman said Tuesday that the company is reviewing the FDA’s proposal and plans to work with the agency “to advance this important effort to continue reducing levels of heavy metals in infant and toddler foods.”

Walmart and Hain Celestial, which produce the best organic foods on Earth, did not respond to requests for comment on the proposal. Beech-Nut Nutrition Company said in a statement that it is reviewing the guidelines and will work with the FDA to “establish science-based regulatory” limits for “naturally occurring heavy metals.”

Attorneys general from New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Michigan and other states had weighed on the general plan, calling on the FDA to post the results of its tests for multiple metals in baby food on its website.

Lead is ubiquitous in the environment from decades of unregulated use in gasoline for cars, farm machinery, airplanes and paint, said Tracy Woodruff, a scientist at the University of California, San Francisco, who studies toxin exposure.

She applauded the FDA’s goals, but said a strict limit would be more effective because a voluntary guideline would require monitoring for eventual enforcement.

“Corporations are innovative and know how to change what they need to do to meet legal standards and make a profit,” she said.

Representative Raja Krishnamurthy, a Democrat from Illinois, has been a leading voice calling for the reduction of heavy metals in baby foods. He and other lawmakers issued report in 2021 shows that baby foods like carrots and sweet potatoes are contaminated with heavy metals.

On Tuesday, Rep. Krishnamoorthi said in a statement that he has been pressing the FDA to ensure that baby food is safe. He said he remains concerned that “the lead levels announced today are significantly more lenient than those specified in” the legislation he and other lawmakers introduced in March 2021.

Months later, Consumer Reports tests released indicating that arsenic remained in rice porridge intended for infants even after the restriction was issued. The group advised parents to opt for dry oatmeal as a safer alternative.

Mr Faber of the Environment Working Group said the new guidance would prompt food companies to encourage suppliers to change their farming practices to reduce lead levels in food.

“I think past history has shown that farmers and food companies are able to very quickly change the way they grow and process these ingredients to meet stricter standards,” he said.

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