Alarmingly high levels have been found in many big brands, including Beech-Nut and Gerber, a federal government report discloses
Seven of the largest manufacturers of baby food in the U.S. were contacted for the report—Beech-Nut Nutrition Company, Campbell Soup Company (which sells Plum Organics), Gerber, Hain Celestial Group (which sells Earth’s Best organic products), Nurture (which sells Happy Family Organics and Happy Baby products), Sprout organic foods, and Walmart (which sells Parent"s Choice).
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Though the levels cited in the report are very high, CR"s lead scientist says parents should not panic, and they have many healthy options for feeding their babies. Experts say the government and industry can and should be doing more to protect babies.
Many popular baby food products contain a surprisingly high amount of dangerous heavy metals—including arsenic, cadmium, and lead, according to a new report released by a House subcommittee.
Though it is widely known that heavy metals are found in some foods because of contaminated water and soil, the levels found in baby food are particularly problematic.
Young children are especially vulnerable to the toxic effects of these substances, according to James Dickerson, PhD, chief scientific officer for Consumer Reports. “Exposure to heavy metals has a disproportionate adverse effect on developing minds and bodies.”
The subcommittee report provides further evidence that not enough is being done by baby food companies and the government to reduce the risk from exposure to these contaminants, and that parts of the manufacturing process, including the addition of vitamins and mineral mixes, may be contributing to the problem.
Although companies contend that they do what they can to remove toxic heavy metals from baby food, the high levels found in the report show that the process isn"t effective enough.
Heavy metals all are part of the earth’s crust, so they are naturally found in the environment. But most of the heavy metals in food come from soil or water that has been contaminated through either farming and manufacturing practices (such as pesticide application, mining, and smelting) or pollution (such as the use of leaded gasoline).
Crops take up heavy metals from the soil and water as they grow, and some absorb more than others.
Yet, CR’s 2018 testing of baby food showed it is feasible for manufacturers to produce products with very low levels of these contaminants. About a third of the products we tested contained heavy metals below our level of concern, and in some products, there were no detectable levels of one or more heavy metals.
However, this same research by Consumer Reports, as well as work by other organizations, has shown that most baby food and fruit juice still contain harmful levels of heavy metals, the presence of which is largely unregulated by the Food and Drug Administration.
The subcommittee"s report findings don’t mean that parents should stop giving their infants prepared baby food. But they should limit the amount and mix it in with more healthy choices (see our advice for parents, below.)
Experts agree: There’s no safe level of exposure to heavy metals—meaning that the lower exposure can be, the better, especially for children.
“Lead, cadmium, and arsenic have deleterious effects on the developing infant mind, brain, cardiovascular system, and immune system,” says CR’s Dickerson. Those effects can lower IQ and are linked to behavior problems and ADHD, as well as an increased risk for skin and bladder cancer.
And these substances are ubiquitous enough that “every baby is likely exposed
But while ubiquitous exposure and these seemingly high levels are concerning, parents should not panic or assume that all baby foods are problematic.
“Clearly, baby food manufacturers should be doing a lot more to keep levels of heavy metals in their products as close to zero as possible. However, you still need to feed your child,” CR’s Dickerson says.
“What the report shows, and what CR’s own testing has found, is that certain foods are riskier than others. In the context of an overall diverse and healthy diet, the occasional serving of even a product with these high levels will not permanently harm your child,” he says. Instead, it’s chronic exposure to these metals over time that’s problematic.
In response to testing by CR and other organizations, the House Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy asked seven leading baby food manufacturers to provide internal data on testing for heavy metals in the ingredients they use and the products they sell.
The data from companies that responded to the subcommittee revealed a number of surprising concerns.
Many baby foods contain excessive amounts of heavy metals, the subcommittee’s report finds, and companies regularly sell products that contain ingredients (foods, spices, additives, or vitamins/minerals) that exceed their own internal standards for heavy metals.
Most of the companies don’t regularly test the finished products, and when they do, in many cases, they still allow products with high levels of heavy metals to go to market, according to the report. Organic products were as likely to have high levels as conventional products.
“There are dangerous levels of toxic metals in baby food, and the levels far exceed what experts and governing bodies say is permissible,” Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-IL), chairman of the subcommittee, told CR. “Left to their own devices, baby food makers have set testing standards far in excess of what recommended standards are, and even then, they often violate their standards.”
This report also further highlights the lack of regulation for products that are meant to nourish children. “The FDA is almost completely AWOL on this issue,” Krishnamoorthi says.
Heavy metals is not a new problem. “The time for studying this is over,” says HBBF’s Houlihan. “It’s now time for the FDA and companies to act, so we can really start to protect babies’ health.”
Consumer Reports reached out to all the companies discussed in the subcommittee’s report and to the FDA. The companies that responded to us and the agency underscored their commitment to consumer safety, with some of the baby food manufacturers disputing the report’s findings.
Four companies responded to the subcommittee’s request for data: Nurture (which sells Happy Family Organics and Happy Baby products), Beech-Nut Nutrition Company, Hain Celestial Group (which sells Earth’s Best organic products), and Gerber.
The report says that Walmart, Sprout, and Campbell Soup Company (which sells Plum Organics products) did not respond. (A Campbell representative says the company did respond, though the report says that this response lacked key data; more on that below.)
All companies that sent data to the subcommittee reported finding inorganic arsenic (the most harmful form), lead, and cadmium in their products. Only one company, Nurture, regularly tested for mercury.
The levels of all heavy metals were often far above what experts consider safe. For example, the FDA set a limit in August 2020 for inorganic arsenic in infant rice cereal at 100 parts per billion.
Using 100 ppb as a reference, a quarter of finished products tested by Nurture contained more than this level, according to the report. Hain usually tested only ingredients, with some coming in as high as 309 ppb, and some finished products contained as much as 129 ppb. Some ingredients used by Beech-Nut tested as high as 913 ppb, and Gerber used at least 67 batches of rice flour testing more than 90 ppb inorganic arsenic.
There is no lead standard for baby foods, but the FDA standard for bottled water is 5 ppb lead. Yet 20 percent of Nurture’s finished products contained more than 10 ppb lead, and many ingredients used by Beech-Nut, Hain, and Gerber contained more than 20 ppb lead.
Though the focus has been on the heavy metal content of the actual foods in the products—for instance rice and sweet potatoes—the subcommittee’s report highlights the often very high heavy metal content of other ingredients, such as spices, additives, and the vitamin mixes added to baby products. In certain cases, a company’s internal limits for these ingredients were often high. For example, the standards Beech-Nut set for vitamin mixes were more than 3,000 ppb arsenic and cadmium.
“We haven’t tested spices and vitamins that go into baby food
The report also states that internal standards are insufficient. Some companies test only their ingredients, but the report cites a presentation given by Hain to the FDA that said ingredient testing routinely underestimated the amount of arsenic in final products. This could be due to some additives like a vitamin mix or due to the manufacturing process, according to CR’s Dickerson.
What’s more, companies used ingredients with higher levels of metals than their own standards allowed for. For example, Nurture said it sold all products tested, regardless of test results, according to the report.
“Companies have a responsibility on this one,” says Tom Neltner, chemicals policy director of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), to more carefully monitor and select the ingredients they use. But regulators especially need to step up. “The bottom line is that FDA needs to regain the public trust that it can translate the science on these chemicals into action that’s necessary to protect people,” he says.
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The EDF and HBBF are working with baby food producers through an initiative known as The Baby Food Council to set standards for acceptable levels of heavy metals in baby food and to develop ways to certify foods that comply with that standard.
“We’ve been working with the companies to develop baby food standards partly because we think the industry is willing to do more than what FDA will expect,” Neltner says. (The data in the subcommittee’s report was gathered before the Baby Food Council, which includes several of the companies named in the report, resolved to establish a standard for heavy metals in baby food.)
A Gerber spokesperson said: “