Jan 24, 2023 - Health

FDA proposes lead limits in baby food products

Baby food for sale inside a Walmart.

Baby food for sale inside a Walmart. Photo: Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday proposed new maximum limits on how much lead can be present in food products intended for babies and young children.

Why it matters: Lead, a toxic element that can harm children’s health and development if they are exposed to even low levels of it, is just one heavy metal that has been consistently detected in baby foods.

How it works: Lead and other heavy metals generally get into baby food because they have been introduced in soil in which foods used for products are grown, the FDA said.

  • The metals are generally introduced into growing environments from contaminated water, pesticides and atmospheric deposition from industrial activities, though there can be natural sources as well, such as volcanic eruptions and rock weathering.
  • Agricultural crops, like root vegetables, then take up the pollutants as they grow, or the pollutants may be deposited and present on plant surfaces, such as the leaves of leafy vegetables.
  • Certain plants can absorb lead and other heavy metals more readily from the soil than other crops.
  • Lead is toxic to people of any age or health status, but it can be particularly dangerous for children.
  • It's been known to damage their brains and nervous systems, affect their growth and development, cause learning and behavior problems as well as hearing and speech problems, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

By the numbers: The FDA's draft guidance would set levels that do not exceed 10 parts per billion of lead in most fruits, vegetables, mixtures, yogurts, custards, puddings and single-ingredient meats.

  • It would also set levels that do not exceed 20 parts per billion in root vegetables and dry infant cereals.
  • The limits would apply to these categories of food that are specifically produced for babies and young children less than two years old.

Yes, but: It would not be mandatory for producers to abide by the FDA's proposed limits, but the agency would be able to bring enforcement actions against manufacturers that produce products which exceed the limits.

  • The limits only apply to lead, but other heavy metals, like cadmium, arsenic and mercury, have also been detected in foods for babies and toddlers.

What they're saying: The proposed draft guidance is intended "to help reduce potential health effects in this vulnerable population from dietary exposure to lead," the FDA said Tuesday in a news release.

  • "The proposed action levels announced today, along with our continued work with our state and federal partners, and with industry and growers to identify mitigation strategies, will result in long-term, meaningful and sustainable reductions in the exposure to this contaminant from foods,” FDA Commissioner Robert Califf said in a statement.
  • "For babies and young children who eat the foods covered in today’s draft guidance, the FDA estimates that these action levels could result in as much as a 24-27% reduction in exposure to lead from these foods."

The big picture: The FDA in August 2020 set limits on the amount of inorganic arsenic that can be present in rice cereal for infants, and in April 2022 it proposed lead limits in juices.

What's next: The limits will be finalized by the agency after a 60-day period for public comment.

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