Manufacturers allowed baby food contaminated with heavy metals to remain on shelves, lawmakers say

Updated 9:53 PM ET, Thu September 30, 2021

(CNN)Gerber and Beech-Nut failed to properly test and remove baby foods with dangerous levels of inorganic arsenic from the market, while Sprout Foods Inc., Walmart's Parent's Choice and Plum Organics (formerly owned by Campbell) were lax in testing and controlling for heavy metals such as lead, mercury and cadmium, according to a US Congressional report released Wednesday by the House Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy.

"Today's report reveals that companies not only under-report the high levels of toxic content in their baby food, but also knowingly keep toxic products on the market," said Democratic Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois, chair of the House Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy, which conducted the investigation.
Several baby food manufacturers CNN contacted disagree with the subcommittee's assessment, and all say they are committed to working closely with the US Food and Drug Administration to address the issue.
Arsenic and other heavy metals are natural elements found in soil, water and air. Rice, which is a common ingredient in baby cereal, is grown submersed in water and is especially good at absorbing inorganic arsenic, the most toxic form.
Exposure to heavy metals in baby food became a growing concern for parents after Healthy Babies Bright Futures, a coalition of advocates committed to reducing babies' exposures to neurotoxic chemicals, tested 168 baby foods from major manufacturers in the US.
The testing found 95% of sampled baby foods contained lead, 73% contained arsenic, 75% contained cadmium and 32% contained mercury. One fourth of the baby foods contained all four heavy metals. The results mimicked a previous study by the US Food and Drug Administration that found one or more of the same metals in 33 of 39 types of baby food tested.
"Even in trace amounts, these contaminants can alter the developing brain and erode a child's IQ," said Jane Houlihan, research director for Healthy Babies Bright Futures.
"The impacts add up with each meal or snack a baby eats — especially when the levels are as high as Healthy Babies Bright Futures' research and the subcommittee's new report show."

Earlier investigation

In an earlier investigation released in February, the subcommittee looked at internal testing documents from four major baby food manufacturers: Gerber; Beech-Nut Nutrition; Nurture, Inc., which sells Happy Baby products; and Hain Celestial Group, Inc., which sells Earth's Best Organic baby food.
The documents showed some products contained levels of lead, mercury, cadmium and inorganic arsenic were far above limits set for bottled water by the FDA and the US Environmental Protection Agency. Ground water can easily absorb heavy metals from the soil, and old lead pipes leak, so drinking water is a key exposure to heavy metals.
Inorganic arsenic, lead, cadmium and mercury are in the World Health Organization's top 10 chemicals of concern for infants and children.
Of the four companies, the subcommittee found only Nurture tested the final product -- the actual food babies would eat -- after all ingredients had been added. The rest of the companies tested some, but not all ingredients, the investigation found.
That's a significant concern, the report said, because each ingredient may have levels of toxins that fall under the cutoff for safety -- but when added together, they may exceed government standards.
There is no safe level of lead for children, according to the EPA and US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While there are no specific limits set for infant foods, the EPA and FDA set an upper limit of 2 parts per billion of inorganic mercury in drinking water, and 5 parts per billion for cadmium.
In 2016 the FDA introduced a standard of 100 parts per billion for inorganic arsenic in infant rice cereal, finalizing that guidance in August 2020. But that level is too high to protect babies' brains, critics said, especially considering the agency had already set the limit for bottled water at 10 parts per billion (ppb).
"FDA set the limit at 100 ppb because it was focused on the level of inorganic arsenic that would cause cancer. It disregarded the risk of neurological damage, which happens at a much lower level," the report stated.
A maximum level of inorganic arsenic in baby food should be set at 10 parts per billion, the report said, "with a 15 ppb limit for infant cereal, as proposed in the Baby Food Safety Act."
An FDA spokesperson told CNN that the agency continues to make "steady progress towards developing action levels for lead in foods and evaluating the science to establish reference levels for arsenic and cadmium."
"We look forward to providing additional updates on our efforts as new data, information, progress updates and additional material are made available."

Investigation continues

In May, the state of Alaska conducted a FDA-funded analysis of Beech-Nut's and Gerber's infant rice cereals and found "multiple samples" contained more inorganic arsenic than the "FDA's 100 parts per billion (ppb) limit," the report stated.