Some popular baby foods contain ‘significant levels’ of toxic heavy metals, report says

By KATIE KINDELAN and KELLY MCCARTHY, ABC News

(NEW YORK) — Some popular baby foods contain “significant” levels of toxic heavy metals that have the potential to harm babies’ neurological development, according to a new report by a U.S. House Oversight subcommittee.

Baby food products by brands including Beech-Nut, Earth’s Best Organic, Happy Family Organics and Gerber were found to contain lead, cadmium and arsenic, according to the report released Thursday.

Mercury was also found in products from Happy Family Organics, the only company of the four that tests mercury levels in its products, according to the report.

“These results are multiples higher than allowed under existing regulations for other products,” the report states. “Internal company standards permit dangerously high levels of toxic heavy metals, and documents revealed that the manufacturers have often sold foods that exceeded those levels.”

Congressional investigators requested test results and internal company documents from seven of the largest baby food manufacturers in the U.S. in November 2019, following reports alleging baby foods contain high levels of toxic heavy metals.

Nurture Inc., which sells Happy Family Organics, including baby food products under the brand name HappyBABY; Hain Celestial Group Inc, the maker of Earth’s Best Organic baby food products; Beech-Nut Nutrition Company, the maker of Beech-Nut baby products, and Gerber, a unit of Nestle, complied with the investigators’ request, according to the report.

Walmart Inc, Campbell Soup Co. and Sprout Organic Foods “refused to cooperate with the investigation,” according to the report.

Randy Hargrove, senior director of national media relations for Walmart, told ABC News the company responded to Congressional investigators’ inquiry in a letter last year, offering to work with the committee and explaining the certification requirements for Walmart’s private label manufacturers, and said the company “never received any additional inquiries” from investigators.

Campbell Soup Co. disputed the findings of the report, saying in a statement, in part, “our testing showed each product was well within levels deemed acceptable by independent authorities.”

Sprout Organic Foods, the third company investigators said did not cooperate, did not respond to ABC News’ request for comment.

In some cases, some of the baby food products analyzed carried as much as 91 times the allowable arsenic level, 177 times the lead level, 69 times the cadmium level, and up to five times the mercury level, the report said.

The report, overseen by subcommittee Chair Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.), was also critical of the handling of toxic heavy metals in baby foods by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) during the Trump administration.

“To this day, baby foods containing toxic heavy metals bear no label or warning to parents,” investigators stated. “Manufacturers are free to test only ingredients, or, for the vast majority of baby foods, to conduct no testing at all.”

The FDA said in a statement to ABC News it is aware of the report and is “reviewing its findings.”

In a call to action, the report said the FDA should require baby food manufacturers to report levels of toxic heavy metals on their food labels.

The report also called on the agency to require mandatory testing of baby food brands’ finished products, not just ingredients, and to set maximum levels of toxic heavy metals permitted in baby foods.

Baby food manufacturers, described as holding “a special position of public trust, should also find substitutes for ingredients high in toxic heavy metals, or phase out products that frequently test high in toxic heavy metals,” according to the report.

What parents should know

Exposure to toxic heavy metals poses a specific risk to toddlers and infants because they absorb more than adults and their brains are still developing, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Diagnosing heavy metal poisoning can also be difficult and symptoms may be easy to miss. Those symptoms include things ranging from dehydration and abdominal pain to changes in behavior, weakened bones, anemia, numbness and weakness and edema, according to the NIH.

Even with those warnings, experts say parents should know that lead toxicity is not uncommon, which is why the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends screening for elevated lead levels in all children from ages 9 to 12 months and again around age 2. Heavy metals have been well studied, they can be screened for and therapies are available, experts say.

Additionally, experts point out that heavy metals are found all over, and in order to suffer detrimental effects, a person would have to be exposed to toxic heavy metals for a prolonged period of time, and a one-time ingestion of the levels found in baby food products would not be considered dangerous.

Thursday’s report called on parents to be vigilant when it comes to feeding their children, advising them specifically to, “avoid baby foods that contain ingredients testing high in toxic heavy metals, such as rice products.”

The AAP says parents can take steps to help shield their children from toxic heavy metals, which enter food through water and soil as well as from food manufacturing and packaging.

Parents should serve their kids a variety of healthy foods that are rich in essential nutrients, which can help lower their exposure to metals, according to the AAP.

Rotating the grains children eat can also help since rice “tends to absorb more arsenic from groundwater than other crops,” according to the AAP.

Breastfeeding rather than formula feeding can also help reduce exposure to metals, as can checking your water to make sure the lead levels are safe, notes the AAP.

Finally, choosing fish like salmon, cod, whitefish and light tuna that are low in mercury can help, as well as avoiding smoking. Secondhand smoke, from both regular and e-cigarettes, can expose children to metals, according to the AAP.

Parents should be aware that studies have also found toxic heavy metals in organic foods, according to Dr. Darien Sutton, an emergency medicine physician and ABC News medical contributor, who noted the guidelines for reducing exposure to toxic heavy metals can “be difficult for families with low socioeconomic status.”

Baby food manufacturers, FDA respond

Here are the full product statements from the FDA and the companies named in the House subcommittee’s report:

Sprout Organic Foods and Beech-Nut Nutrition did not reply to ABC News’ request for comment.

FDA:

“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. 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.”

“For example, in August 2020 the FDA finalized its guidance to industry, setting an action level of 100 parts per billion inorganic arsenic in infant rice cereal. FDA sampling of infant rice cereal showed that since 2016 manufacturers have made significant progress in reducing arsenic in infant rice cereal products, demonstrating that this action level is achievable by industry. Going forward, good manufacturing processes, such as sourcing rice and other ingredients with lower inorganic arsenic levels, will continue to help manufacturers produce infant rice cereal with inorganic arsenic levels below the action level.”

“As the FDA continues to work toward reducing toxic elements in foods, we are also providing consumers with actionable advice to limit exposure. For example, the FDA has communicated advice about the importance of feeding infants a variety of grain-based infant cereals. Rice cereal fortified with iron is a good source of nutrients for infants, but it shouldn’t be the only source and does not need to be the first one. 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 from food.”

Hain Celestial Group Inc, the maker of Earth’s Best Organic baby food products:

“Nothing is more important to Earth’s Best than the trust and confidence of parents that our organic products provide safe nutrition for healthy babies. Our rigorous internal standards and testing procedures ensure Earth’s Best products meet or exceed the current federal guidelines. In addition, we work collaboratively with the Baby Food Council (composed of other manufacturers, the Environmental Defense Fund and Cornell University), the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture to continuously refine and improve upon the standards to ensure our products exceed safety and nutrition standards – including reducing the levels of heavy metals that occur naturally in soil and water.”

“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. Like any food producer, we meet with regulatory and oversight agencies to refine and update our policies and procedures to ensure the safety of our products. As science evolves, so too should our standards and practices, which is why we met with the FDA last year to discuss how to better refine those standards and practices. Following the meeting, we took several steps to reduce the levels of heavy metals in our finished products – including no longer using brown rice in our products that are primarily rice based, changing other ingredients and conducting additional testing of finished product before shipping. Meeting with the FDA did what the regulatory process is supposed to: collaboratively drive improvements that benefit the consumer.”

“Earth’s Best has consistently supported efforts to reduce naturally occurring heavy metals from our food supply and stands ready to assist the subcommittee’s efforts toward that goal.”

Gerber, a unit of Nestlé U.S.:

“At Gerber, the health and safety of babies is our highest priority.”

“The standards we have in place for the safety and quality of our baby foods are industry-leading, and among the strictest in not just the U.S., but the world. We meet or exceed all existing government requirements, and where they don’t currently exist, we have established our own high standards based on the latest food safety guidance. Heavy metals occur naturally in the soil and water in which crops are grown. As stated in our 2019 response to the Congressional Inquiry, we take many steps to minimize their presence, 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. Gerber foods receive thorough oversight at all levels of the growing and the production process.”

“Gerber is also a founding member of the Baby Food Council, a group comprised of leading baby food companies, academic, government and NGO partners and advisors committed to reducing heavy metals in baby foods to the lowest levels possible. We remain fully committed to being industry leaders in providing safe, quality nutrition for babies.”

Happy Family Organics, the baby food product sold under Nurture Inc.:

“We are disappointed at the many inaccuracies, select data usage and tone bias in this report. We can say with the utmost confidence that all Happy Family Organics products are safe for babies and toddlers to enjoy, and we are proud to have best-in-class testing protocols in our industry. The report provides little of the relevant and necessary context for this complex topic. It is important to acknowledge that trace amounts of minerals and metals can be found naturally in the environment, including in water and soil. In turn, it is possible that small amounts can be present in wholesome ingredients like leafy greens, grains, fruits, and vegetables. Many everyday foods would contain trace amounts of these elements – whether they are prepared at home or sold as packaged food.”

“Many of the results we provided as part of this 2019 report were collected based on a small portion of our portfolio and are not representative generally of our entire range of products at-shelf today. As a company run by parents, we prioritize the health and safety of our little ones, and work with the FDA, experts, and industry on contaminants management through the Baby Food Council. We only sell products that have been rigorously tested and we do not have products in-market with contaminant ranges outside of the limits set by the FDA. We are committed to progress and welcome additional guidelines from the FDA. Additionally, we are partnering with industry leaders in the creation of a Baby Food Standard with the shared goal of reducing the levels of heavy metals to as low as reasonably achievable.”

Walmart:

“Walmart is committed to providing safe, quality food. We provided information to the subcommittee nearly a year ago and invited more dialogue on this important issue but never received any additional inquiries. Any product testing would be managed by our suppliers, which is why 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 U.S. Food and Drug Administration. In addition, our private label product suppliers must meet our own internal finished goods specifications, which for baby and toddler food means the levels must meet or fall below the limits established by the FDA. Healthy Babies Bright Futures also published ‘What’s in my baby’s food,’ in October of 2019 that tested seven Walmart private label products and according to their reported results, the metals tested were within FDA guidance levels. We are reviewing the report now that it is available.”

Campbell Soup Co.:

“For more than 150 years, Campbell has placed the safety of consumers, especially our youngest consumers, above all else. That is why we cooperated with the Committee on Oversight and Reform’s baby food review. We responded quickly to their questions, which you can read here, and never refused anything requested of us. We are surprised that the Committee would suggest that Campbell was less than full partners in this mission. We welcomed the opportunity to work with the Committee in 2019—and continue to do so today. We want to assure our consumers, the Committee, and any other interested stakeholders that our products are safe. In our submission, we noted the unfortunate lack of a current FDA standard for heavy metals in baby food. As we told the Committee in our response, our testing showed each product was well within levels deemed acceptable by independent authorities.”

“Heavy metals are present throughout the environment, including soil and water. Whether you are growing your own produce in your backyard, buying fresh produce from a farmer’s market or purchasing a product from your favorite retailer, these substances will be present in the food to some extent. Campbell is committed to minimizing environmental contaminants including heavy metals within our products, and we will work with anyone to help establish federal standards to ensure that babies get the food they need to support healthy growth in their early years.”

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