The allowable levels of lead in certain baby and toddler foods should be set at 20 parts per billion or less, according to new draft guidance issued Tuesday by the US Food and Drug Administration.
"For babies and young children who eat the foods covered in today's draft guidance, the FDA estimates that these action levels could result in as much as a 24-27% reduction in exposure to lead from these foods," said FDA Commissioner Dr. Robert Califf in a statement.
Baby foods covered by the new proposal include processed baby foods sold in boxes, jars, pouches and tubs for babies and young children younger than 2 years old, the agency said.
While any action on the part of the FDA is welcome, the suggested levels of lead are not low enough to move the needle, 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.
"Nearly all baby foods on the market already comply with what they have proposed," said Houlihan, who authored a 2019 report that found dangerous levels of lead and other heavy metals in 95% of manufactured baby food.
That report triggered a 2021 congressional investigation, which found leading baby food manufacturers knowingly sold products with high levels of toxic metals.
"The FDA hasn't done enough with these proposed lead limits to protect babies and young children from lead's harmful effects. There is no known safe level of lead exposure, and children are particularly vulnerable," Houlihan said.
The director of food policy for Consumers Reports, Brian Ronholm, also expressed concerns. In 2018, Consumer Reports analyzed 50 baby foods and found "concerning" levels of lead and other heavy metals. In fact, "15 of them would pose a risk to a child who ate one serving or less per day," according to Consumer Reports.
"The FDA should be encouraging industry to work harder to reduce hazardous lead and other heavy metals in baby food given how vulnerable young children are to toxic exposure," Ronholm said in a statement.
Toxic metals in the soil
Lead, arsenic, cadmium and mercury are in the World Health Organization's top 10 chemicals of concern for infants and children.
As natural elements, they are in the soil in which crops are grown and thus can't be avoided. Some crop fields and regions, however, contain more toxic levels than others, partly due to the overuse of metal-containing pesticides and ongoing industrial pollution.
The new FDA guidance suggests manufactured baby food custards, fruits, food mixtures - including grain and meat-based blends - puddings, vegetables, yogurts, and single-ingredient meats and vegetables contain no more than 10 parts per billion of lead.
The exception to the above is for single-ingredient root vegetables, such as carrots and sweet potatoes, which should contain no more than 20 parts per billion, according to the new guidance.
Dry cereals marketed to babies and toddlers should also not contain more than 20 parts per billion of lead, the new FDA guidance said.
However, the FDA didn't propose any lead limit for cereal puffs and teething biscuits, Houlihan said, even though the products account for "7 of the 10 highest lead levels we've found in over 1,000 baby food tests we have assessed."
The limit set for root vegetables will be helpful, Houlihan added. Because they grow underground, root vegetables can easily absorb heavy metals. For example, sweet potatoes often exceed the 20 parts per billion limit the FDA has proposed, she said.
More needs to be done
Prior to this announcement, the FDA had only set limits for heavy metal in one baby food - infant rice cereal, Houlihan said. In 2021, the agency set a limit of 100 parts per billion for arsenic, which has been linked to adverse pregnancy outcomes and neurodevelopmental toxicity.
"The FDA needs to set a limit that protects children's neurodevelopment," Houlihan added.
"So many solutions are already available to reduce heavy metals levels in baby food. Companies can require suppliers and growers to test, and can choose ingredients with lower levels. Growers can use soil additives, different growing methods and crop varieties known to reduce lead in their products," she said.
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