Updated Feb 4, 2021 - Health

Top baby foods contain toxic heavy metals, congressional panel finds

Gerber baby food on a shopping mall shelf

Gerber baby food at a supermarket. Photo: James Leynse/Corbis via Getty Images

Significant amounts of arsenic, lead, mercury, and other toxic heavy metals are in baby food made by the largest such companies in the U.S., according to a report published Thursday by a House Oversight subcommittee.

Why it matters: Babies and children are more vulnerable to severe and neurotoxic damage by toxic heavy metals than adults. The report alleges that the FDA under the Trump administration failed to take action after learning about the increased risk of heavy metals in baby food.

  • "Exposure to these toxic heavy metals affects babies’ brain development and nervous system, it affects their behavior, permanently decreases their IQ and, if you want to boil it down to dollars, their lifetime earnings potential,” Tom Neltner, chemicals policy director for the Environmental Defense Fund, told the Washington Post.

What they found: Gerber, the No. 1 seller of baby food in the U.S., "rarely tests for mercury." Many of the company's ingredients contained cadmium, lead, and high-arsenic products, according to the report.

  • Beech-Nut, the second-highest seller in the country, routinely used high-arsenic additives and "many ingredients with high lead content." The company does not test for mercury in its food.
  • Hain Celestial, maker of Earth’s Best Organic foods, sold finished products with high levels of arsenic and typically did not test finished products. The company also used "many ingredients with high lead content" and 102 ingredients with cadmium.
  • Nurture, manufacturer of Happy Family Organics products, sold baby food with as much as 641 parts per billion (ppb) of lead. The company's testing found that its typical baby food product contained 60 ppb inorganic arsenic.

By the numbers: The FDA set the maximum limit for inorganic arsenic in bottled water at 10 ppb. Beech-Nut used ingredients after they tested as high as 913 ppb arsenic, while Hain sold baby food containing as much as 129 ppb arsenic, according to the report.

What they're saying: The committee's report accuses the manufacturers of "knowingly" selling "tainted baby food to unsuspecting parents, in spite of internal company test results showing high levels of toxic heavy metal, and without any warning labels whatsoever,” Chairman Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.) said in a press release. 

  • “I look forward to FDA’s careful regulation of these toxic heavy metals in baby foods, followed by strict compliance requirements and mandatory consumer labels," Krishnamoorthi said."

The FDA said in a statement that it is reviewing the report's findings and it "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," the agency said.
  • “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.”

Gerber told the Post that it had not seen the report and could not comment on specific findings. Hain did not respond to the Post's requests for comment.

  • A Beech-Nut spokesperson said in a statement to Axios that the company's food is "safe and nutritious," and that the company is reviewing the report and looks forward to continue working with the FDA and Baby Food Council.
  • Happy Family Organics said in a statement that the company is "disappointed at the many inaccuracies, select data usage and tone bias" in the committee's report. "We can say with the utmost confidence that all Happy Family Organics products are safe for babies and toddlers to enjoy," the spokesperson said.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with statements from Happy Family Organics and Beech-Nut.

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