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Leading baby food manufacturers reportedly sold baby food with known high levels of toxic metals

Internal testing done by Gerber, Beech-Nut Nutrition Company, Nurture, Inc., and Hain Celestial Group, Inc., reportedly showed high levels of heavy metals.

Leading baby food manufacturers reportedly sold baby food with known high levels of toxic metals
Cover Image Source: Getty Images (representative)

A congressional investigation released on Thursday revealed that four leading baby food manufacturers knowingly sold baby food that contained high levels of toxic heavy metals. Speaking to CNN about the disturbing findings of the investigation, Democratic Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois — chair of the House Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy which conducted the investigation — said: "Dangerous levels of toxic metals like arsenic, lead, cadmium, and mercury exist in baby foods at levels that exceed what experts and governing bodies say are permissible". Krishnamoorthi described internal company documents provided by manufacturers as "shocking" since they reportedly show evidence that some baby foods contain hundreds of parts per billion of dangerous metals.




"Yet we know that in a lot of cases, we should not have anything more than single-digit parts per billion of any of these metals in any of our foods," he added. Arsenic, lead, cadmium, and mercury are among the World Health Organization's top 10 chemicals of concern for infants and children. While they are present in the soil in which crops are grown as natural elements — and hence cannot be avoided completely — some crop fields and regions contain more toxic levels than others, in part due to the overuse of metal-containing pesticides and ongoing industrial pollution.




"There was a time where we used metals as the predominant pesticide for many years, assuming it was safe," said Dr. Leonardo Trasande, chief of environmental pediatrics at NYU Langone. While these heavy metals have long been linked to cancer, chronic disease, and neurotoxic effects, the devastating damage they could do to a developing baby's brain is what makes baby food toxicity so critical. "Their brain is forming rapidly, and so when they're exposed to metals that can interrupt those natural processes, the impacts range from behavioral problems to aggression to IQ loss and all kinds of cognitive and behavioral deficits that can persist throughout life," said Jane Houlihan, the national director of science and health for Healthy Babies Bright Futures, a coalition of advocates committed to reducing babies' exposures to neurotoxic chemicals.




"Pound for pound, babies get the highest dose of these heavy metals compared to other parts of the population," she added. "So the consequences are serious." In a report published in 2019, Healthy Babies Bright Futures found toxic metals in 95 percent of the baby foods randomly pulled off supermarket shelves and tested. This report, Krishnamoorthi revealed, was the "inspiration" for the subcommittee's work. The congressional investigators found that internal testing done by Gerber; Beech-Nut Nutrition Company; Nurture, Inc., which sells Happy Baby products; and Hain Celestial Group, Inc., which sells Earth's Best Organic baby food, showed levels of heavy metals far above limits set for bottled water by the FDA and the US Environmental Protection Agency.




The report stated that baby food ingredients in certain products contained up to 91 times the inorganic arsenic level, up to 177 times the lead level, up to 69 times the cadmium level, and up to five times the mercury level allowed in bottled water. Yet, these products were approved for sale by the companies. The subcommittee also found that levels of toxic metals were high irrespective of whether the baby food was organic or not. Meanwhile, according to the congressional investigators, three additional baby food companies did not fully cooperate with the subcommittee's investigation: Sprout Organic Foods; Walmart, which sells Parent's Choice baby food; and Campbell Soup Company, which sells the Plum Organics brand of baby products.




"The Subcommittee is greatly concerned 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," the report states. The investigation also found that the FDA under the Trump administration took no new action in response to the presentation. "To this day, baby foods containing toxic heavy metals bear no label or warning to parents. Manufacturers are free to test only ingredients, or, for the vast majority of baby foods, to conduct no testing at all," the report states.




The subcommittee report recommends that instead of setting limits for one food at a time, the FDA should standardize maximum levels for each toxic metal that can damage an infant's developing brain and apply them to all foods. There should be mandatory testing of any baby food product before it hits the shelves instead of simply testing the ingredients, the report added. Where possible, substitutes should be found for any ingredients over recommended limits, and if not, then the ingredient should be altogether avoided in baby food, the subcommittee said.




"Every maker of baby food... is on notice that we in Congress are not going to sit back and accept the status quo anymore," Krishnamoorthi said. "I hope that companies would voluntarily start to undertake actions such as testing their food more properly and thoroughly and phase out certain ingredients that we know are problematic right now. But I'm also being realistic. We need legislation to compel compliance with standards that the FDA needs to develop."

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