(WASHINGTON) — Several popular baby food brands contain “high levels” of toxic heavy metals — and they are not doing enough to stop the practice, according to a new report released Wednesday by a U.S. House Oversight subcommittee.
Brands including Gerber, Plum Organics, Beech-Nut and Walmart are named in the report, which calls on baby food manufacturers to begin voluntarily testing their products for toxic heavy metals and to phase out products that contain large amounts of ingredients that test high in toxic heavy metals.
The report also calls on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to hurry in releasing its standards for heavy metals in baby foods and to, in the meantime, require baby food makers to test their finished products for heavy metals.
“Today’s report reveals that companies not only under-report the high levels of toxic content in their baby food, but also knowingly keep toxic products on the market,” Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., chairman of the Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy, said in a statement. “The facts speak for themselves, and the fact of the matter is that the baby food industry has consistently cut corners and put profit over the health of babies and children.”
The FDA announced in April its Closer to Zero plan, which has a goal of reducing exposure to toxic elements in foods eaten by kids and babies “to the lowest possible levels.”
In response to the call to action in the subcommittee’s report, the FDA told ABC News it plans to announce “soon” the date for a public meeting that will “address questions around the scope of the Closer to Zero plan.”
“We have continued our sampling to help inform our process to set levels, and we are working to strengthen our relationships with federal partners, industry and advocates to ensure that we make meaningful and lasting reductions in exposure to toxic elements from foods,” the FDA said in the statement.
The new report is a follow-up to a report released in February by the same subcommittee that found baby foods from several leading brands contained “significant” levels of toxic heavy metals, including lead, mercury, cadmium and arsenic.
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.
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.
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).
Experts point out though 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.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends screening for elevated lead levels in children 9 to 12 months old, and again around age 2.
The AAP also has guidelines for parents to help shield their children from toxic heavy metals, which enter food through water and soil as well as from during the manufacturing and packaging processes.
In the new report released Wednesday, the subcommittee says Beech-Nut recalled just two of its six infant rice cereal products that tested over the FDA’s limit of inorganic arsenic earlier this year, while Gerber did not recall either of its two products that also tested over the limit.
In response to the report, a Beech-Nut spokesperson told ABC News in a statement, “Our process of manufacturing baby food does not contribute heavy metals to the final product. Heavy metals are found naturally in our environment. They are in the soil, the water, the air — and are therefore unavoidable in our overall food supply.”
As part of its continuous improvement practices, Beech-Nut continues to work with the FDA to identify the best practices, which may include “finished product testing,” according to the statement.
Gerber told ABC News that it is “committed to reducing the levels of heavy metals in our baby foods to the lowest levels possible.”
“The FDA made us aware of their contact from the State of Alaska about a sample of our rice cereal that tested slightly above the guidance level for inorganic arsenic set by the FDA, and was referenced in the report. The FDA retested the sample, was unable to confirm the result by Alaska and confirmed to Gerber that no action was needed,” the company said in a statement. “While the Subcommittee report notes proposed limits on specific heavy metals, those are based on proposed standards from the Baby Food Safety Act, which are not current law or regulation. All Gerber foods have and continue to meet all applicable guidelines and limits set by the FDA, the governing body for safety regulations in the food industry.”
The subcommittee report also names Plum Organics, whose products it says are “tainted with high levels of toxic heavy metals.” It also calls out Walmart for weakening its arsenic standard in baby food products, calling the decision “an extreme course reversal on efforts to protect babies’ neurological development.”
Sun-Maid, which purchased Plum Organics in May from Campbell Soup Co., did not respond to ABC News’ request for comment.
Campbell Soup Co. told ABC News that it continues to “support the FDA’s efforts in setting clear and specific science-based federal standards.”
“For more than 150 years, Campbell has placed the safety of our consumers above all else,” the company said in a statement. “We have cooperated with the subcommittee throughout this process and will continue to do so. In fact, we released the data highlighted in this report in February 2021 and published it on our web site at that time.”
Walmart said in response to the report’s findings that it has “always required that our suppliers’ products meet the guidelines established by the FDA.”
“Our specifications have always been aligned with or below the FDA requirements for naturally occurring elements and the FDA noted in April that its testing shows that children ‘are not at an immediate health risk to exposure,” Walmart said in a statement to ABC News. “We are encouraged the FDA launched a collaborative process to establish science-based standards for infant and baby foods and look forward to further guidance.”
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