Congressional inquiry finds toxic metals in baby food

By Ariel Wittenberg | 02/04/2021 01:23 PM EST

Top baby food brands contain “significant” levels of toxic heavy metals, according to a House Oversight and Reform subcommittee report released today that also divulged the Trump administration knew about the issue and neglected to act on it.

A new report raises concerns about toxins in baby food.

A new report raises concerns about toxins in baby food. @linsyorozuya/Unsplash

Top baby food brands contain "significant" levels of toxic heavy metals, according to a House Oversight and Reform subcommittee report released today that also divulged the Trump administration knew about the issue and neglected to act on it.

The report from the Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy, which draws on internal testing conducted by four baby food companies, underscores what critics for years have slammed as lax or nonexistent regulation of the industry by the Food and Drug Administration.

The 100-parts-per-billion limit for arsenic in rice cereal is FDA’s only regulation for baby-related products. Public health experts slammed the standard as being set too high when it was established, noting that arsenic in bottled water is limited to just 10 ppb.


Each of the four companies — including those that make "organic" baby food — that provided 2019 data to the committee uses ingredients or sells products with arsenic content far exceeding those levels.

Nurture Inc., which manufactures Happy Family Organics foods like Happy Baby products, continued to sell products even after tests showed that they contained as much as 180 parts per billion of inorganic arsenic and that more than 25% of products the company tested contained more than 100 ppb of the toxin.

The Hain Celestial Group Inc., which produces Earth’s Best Organic, sold baby food containing as much as 129 ppb inorganic arsenic and used ingredients that tests showed contained up to 309 ppb, while Beech-Nut, another organic brand, used ingredients that tested as high as 913.4 ppb.

Gerber, a bastion of baby food, also used ingredients containing arsenic, with arsenic at 90 ppb in batches of rice flour.

It is unclear which of the products or ingredients tested made their way into rice cereals — the only product regulated for is arsenic.

A heavy metal like lead and mercury, arsenic is a neurotoxin that can affect brain development and long-term function. Babies are particularly vulnerable to chemicals like heavy metals because they eat so much relative to their body weight and are rapidly developing.

"Baby food manufacturers hold a special position of public trust. But consumers mistakenly believe that these companies will not sell unsafe products," subcommittee Chair Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.) said in a statement, adding, "It’s time we develop much better standards for the sake of future generations."

The tests also showed high levels of lead, cadmium and mercury in the baby food, but FDA does not have any specific standards for such products.

The agency has set a lead level of 5 ppb for bottled water, and EPA’s tap water lead regulations allow up to 15 ppb. All four brands used ingredients exceeding those levels.

Nurture sold Happy Baby products testing as high as 641 ppb for lead, Beech-Nut used ingredients with as much as 886.9 ppb lead and Hain used ingredients with as much as 352 ppb lead. Gerber’s lead levels were much lower than its competitors, but the up to 48 ppb lead found in baby food ingredients was still far higher than water regulations.

Cadmium levels in baby food ingredients of all four brands also far exceeded FDA’s standards for bottled water of 5 ppb.

The report notes that each company had its own internal standards for heavy metals in baby food but that Hain sold products made with ingredients that exceeded those policies. The company reportedly justified the move to the committee by saying its standards were based on "theoretical calculations."

Only one company named in the report, Happy Family Organics, responded to E&E News’ requests for comment.

"Many everyday foods would contain trace amounts of these elements whether they are prepared at home or sold as packaged foods," the company said, noting none of its products exceed FDA standards. "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 protocols for our industry."

The company also accurately noted that heavy metals can be found in raw ingredients like leafy greens and grains.

Still, the report found multiple instances of companies using additives containing nonnatural heavy metals. Beech-Nut, for example, used high-arsenic enzymes like BAN 800 to address "crumb softness" in baked goods, while Hain was found to be using vitamin mixes high in heavy metals.

Though the subcommittee report comes down hard on those four companies, the committee was quick to slam an additional three — Walmart Inc., Campbell’s and Sprout Organic Foods — that did not respond to its requests for heavy metal test results. That raises "grave" concerns "that their lack of cooperation might be obscuring the presence of even higher levels of toxic heavy metals in their baby food products than their competitors’ products."

Environmental Working Group Senior Vice President Scott Faber said the report underscores FDA’s "failure to protect consumers, including babies, from the chemicals and contaminants that are in our food."

"Today’s report should be a wake-up call to the Biden administration’s incoming Health and Human Services team that FDA is simply asleep at the switch," Faber said.

Failure to act, he said, puts the burden on often-sleep-deprived new parents who are ill-equipped to navigate the technical world of food ingredients and manufacturing.

"Asking new parents to shop their way around the problem when there is nothing on the label is like asking the folks in steerage to save the Titanic," he said. "It’s ridiculous."

Indeed, though Faber called the problem a "bipartisan" one, the committee report makes specific allegations that the Trump administration’s FDA failed to act on a "secret slide presentation" from Hain revealing corporate policies to only test heavy metal content of ingredients that underestimated the levels of toxins in finished products sold by the company. The presentation also showed that many of the company’s products — including half of its brown rice baby foods — were tainted with inorganic arsenic over FDA levels for rice products.

"This presentation made clear that ingredient testing is inadequate and that only final product testing can measure the true danger posed by baby foods," the report says, before underscoring that the "Trump FDA took no new action in response. To this day, baby foods containing toxic heavy metals bear no label or warning to parents."

The committee is recommending FDA set standards for heavy metals in baby food and require food labels to show heavy metal contents in baby foods and mandatory testing of finished products by manufacturers. It also says manufacturers should voluntarily phase out toxic ingredients.