(CNN)All baby food manufacturers must consider toxic chemicals when they test their baby food for potential hazards, the US Food and Drug Administration said Friday.
"We appreciate your attention to your obligation to consider potential chemical hazards, including toxic elements, when conducting a hazard analysis," wrote Susan Mayne, director of the FDA Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, and Dr. Janet Woodcock, the FDA's acting commissioner of food and drugs, in a letter addressed to all baby and toddler food manufacturers and processors.
The FDA action came one month after a congressional investigation found several baby food manufacturers knowingly sold baby food that contained high levels of toxic heavy metals.
"We presented evidence of a pervasive problem of toxic heavy metals in baby foods, and when we asked the Biden Administration's FDA for help in addressing it, they were very concerned and responsive," said Democratic Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois, chair of the House Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy, which conducted the investigation, signed by the Democratic members.
"This represents a welcome change at FDA," Krishnamoorthi said. "However, we are disappointed that FDA failed to commit to establishing concrete rules to remove toxic heavy metals from all baby foods. It highlights the need for Congress to pass legislation with strict standards and timelines.
"Babies don't have time to wait for FDA to fill in details. Parents: I encourage you to keep pushing for progress with us," he said.
In the announcement, the FDA put manufacturers on notice that exposure to toxic elements in the food supply would be taken "extremely seriously, especially when it comes to protecting the health and safety of the youngest and most vulnerable in the population."
The agency went on to say that "when the levels of toxic elements or other chemicals in foods do pose a health risk, FDA takes steps to remove those foods from the market," pointing to a January federal court decree that forced "a U.S. company to stop distributing adulterated juice products containing potentially harmful levels of inorganic arsenic" until the company met FDA standards.
Reaction from advocacy groups to the FDA action was lukewarm.
"I think it's a positive -- but limited -- step. I'm disappointed that there is no timeline for action," said Tom Neltner, the chemicals policy director for health at the Environmental Defense Fund.
"In the absence of enforceable standards and deadlines, this is hardly what any of us would call progress," said Scott Faber, senior vice president of government affairs for EWG, or Environmental Working Group.
Food companies are already required by law to look for hazards, "including metals in baby foods, and to adopt changes in how they make food and source ingredients to reduce or eliminate those hazards," Faber said.
"The law is pretty clear, but we doubt baby food companies are following this provision. We also doubt that FDA has been enforcing it. So, today's announcement may indicate that FDA will actually look at food safety plans to assess what they are doing," he said.
"The devil is in the details," said Jane Houlihan, the national director of science and health for Healthy Babies Bright Futures, a coalition of advocates committed to reducing babies' exposures to neurotoxic chemicals.
"While the update and letter are vague, FDA is signaling its intent to take a series of actions to reduce children's exposures to toxic heavy metals," she said.
"For meaningful, significant exposure reductions, FDA must set enforceable health-based limits for toxic heavy metals in the foods that account for the greatest exposures, including rice-based foods and snacks, juices, infant cereals, and root vegetables," Houlihan said.
Internal documents showed 'dangerous' levels
The congressional investigation examined internal documents provided by four leading baby food manufacturers: Gerber; Beech-Nut Nutrition Company; Nurture, Inc., which sells Happy Baby products; and Hain Celestial Group, Inc., which sells Earth's Best Organic baby food.