High levels of toxic heavy metals found in some baby foods: US report

WASHINGTON • US congressional investigators found "dangerous levels of toxic heavy metals" in certain baby foods that could cause neurological damage, a House Oversight sub-committee said in a report in calling for new standards and testing requirements.

The panel examined baby food made by Nurture, Hain Celestial Group, Beech-Nut Nutrition and Gerber, a unit of Nestle, it said, adding it was "greatly concerned" that Walmart, Campbell Soup and Sprout Organic Foods refused to cooperate with the investigation.

The report said internal company standards "permit dangerously high levels of toxic heavy metals, and documents revealed that the manufacturers have often sold foods that exceeded those levels".

The report urged United States regulators to set maximum levels of toxic heavy metals permitted in baby foods and require manufacturers to test finished products for heavy metals, not just ingredients, while baby food companies said they were working on reducing levels of metals that occur naturally in food products.

The Democrat chair of the panel that released the report on Thursday, Representative Raja Krishnamoorthi, said that it found "these manufacturers knowingly sell baby food containing high levels of toxic heavy metals... It's time that we develop much better standards for the sake of future generations".

A Food and Drug Administration (FDA) spokesman said the agency was reviewing the report.

The agency noted toxic elements 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," the FDA said.

Campbell said in a statement on its website that its products are safe and cited the lack of a current FDA standard for heavy metals in baby food. The company said it thought it had been "full partners" in the study with congressional researchers.

Walmart said it submitted information to the committee in February last year and never received any subsequent inquiries. The retail giant requires private label product suppliers to hew to its own internal specifications, "which for baby and toddler food means the levels must meet or fall below the limits established by the FDA".

Happy Family Organics said it was "disappointed at the many inaccuracies, select data usage and tone bias in this report. We can say with the utmost confidence that all Happy Family Organics products are safe".

Hain Celestial, which makes Earth's Best baby food, said that the "report examined outdated data and does not reflect our current practices".

Hain added that since then it has taken "several steps to reduce the levels of heavy metals in our finished products - including no longer using brown rice in our products that are primarily rice-based... and conducting additional testing".

A Gerber representative said the elements in question occur naturally in the soil and water in which crops are grown and added that the company takes multiple steps "to minimise their presence".

Beech-Nut Nutrition said it was reviewing the report and is working with other companies "on science-based standards that food suppliers can implement across our industry".

The FDA has declared that inorganic arsenic, lead, cadmium, and mercury are dangerous, particularly to infants and children, the report noted.

Last August, the agency finalised guidance to the industry, setting an action level of 100 parts per billion inorganic arsenic in infant rice cereal.

"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," the FDA said on Thursday.

There has been no import of baby food made by Nurture, Hain Celestial Group and Beech-Nut Nutrition in the past year in Singapore, said the Singapore Food Agency (SFA) in response to queries from ST.

"Our checks have not detected heavy metals exceeding the maximum limits stated in the Singapore Food Regulations in imported baby food made by Gerber," said the agency on Monday (Feb 8). 

Under regulations, levels of heavy metals (cadmium, mercury, arsenic, lead) in food in Singapore are set as low as reasonably achievable through currently available food production/processing technologies and best practices here, and are consistent with international standards where available, to safeguard and protect babies’ health, added the agency. 

The SFA adopts a science-based risk assessment and management approach that is consistent with international standards. It also has in place a food safety regime that involves testing of food products sold in Singapore to ensure they meet regulatory requirements, including whether the maximum limit for heavy metals is exceeded.

Food that is not compliant with SFA’s food safety standards will not be allowed for sale in Singapore. 

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 06, 2021, with the headline 'High levels of toxic heavy metals found in some baby foods: US report'. Subscribe