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Following the publication of a nonprofit study that uncovered heavy metals in 95 percent of commercial baby foods, a congressional investigation was launched by the Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy to assess the true extent of the issue. The ensuing report released in February 2021 confirmed that infant nutritional products were contaminated with excessive amounts of neurotoxic cadmium, inorganic arsenic, mercury, and lead.

Although the FDA’s strategy to address the looming crisis was swiftly set up, the plan’s ineffectual structure and glacial progress have yet to produce any significant developments that would comprehensively protect vulnerable consumers. The implications are all that more concerning in light of increasing medical evidence of neurotoxic metals’ links to autism spectrum disorders (ASD).

A recall of rice baby food sold at Walmart was ordered during an earlier contamination scare. Photo courtesy of Consumer Reports.

Deficient Industry Standards Facilitated Contamination  

During its investigation, the Subcommittee requested internal data from several major U.S. baby food manufacturers: Gerber, Hain Celestial, Beech-Nut, Nurture, Sprout Organic Foods, Campbell, and Walmart. While the former four companies complied and provided the information, the latter three refused to cooperate.

Even with incomplete data at its disposal, the Subcommittee found subpar safety standards and practices that contributed to the contamination.

Manufacturers rarely (if ever) tested for mercury, evaluated ingredients but failed to analyze finished products, used unsafe additives, and even knowingly commercialized products that exceeded internally-established limits.

Compared to other FDA-regulated products, heavy metals in baby food were higher by significant margins, containing five times more mercury, 69 times more cadmium, 91 times more inorganic arsenic, and 177 times more lead.

Infants and toddlers are especially susceptible to dietary heavy metals’ harmful effects due to their underdeveloped filtering systems. Since they can’t be eliminated, these metals progressively accumulate in tissues and gradually act as neurotoxins affecting young children’s brain development. Systematic reviews and meta-analyses indicate that exposure to inorganic arsenic, lead, cadmium, and mercury positively correlates with higher risks of autism in children.

FDA’s Plan Severely Underperforms 

Two months after the Subcommittee delivered its eye-opening report, the FDA launched its Closer to Zero plan to elaborate adequate safety limits for neurotoxic metals in baby food. However, in spite of its laudable goals, the strategy has been called out for its structural redundancies and ineffectively long timeline.

The plan’s primary and secondary steps that focus on establishing practical safety limits aren’t considered priorities since there’s already abundant data on the topic from reputable sources. Moreover, the timeline for draft limit proposals would extend to 2024, if not longer.

The FDA eventually adopted a 100 ppb (parts per billion) standard for inorganic arsenic in infant rice cereal, which was disputed for not being low enough and covering only a narrow portion of the extensive baby food market. The limited regulation governing the industry unwittingly allows manufacturers to establish arbitrary safety limits that often don’t stand up to scientific scrutiny.

In September 2021, an updated report which included data submitted by the previously-uncooperative baby food companies surfaced even higher levels of contamination than initially anticipated. Even though manufacturers typically comply with and implement federal guidelines once promulgated, they have little incentive to improve their operations voluntarily since it incurs additional capital expenses.

The Baby Food Safety Act 

Seeking a quicker legislative resolution to the contamination crisis, Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-IL) submitted the Baby Food Safety Act of 2021. The bill would require baby food manufacturers to provide biannual final-product reports, bolster the FDA’s regulatory authority, and set interim action levels for heavy metals: 2 ppb for mercury, five to 10 ppb for cadmium and lead, and 10 – 15 ppb for inorganic arsenic.

However, since the committee it was referred to didn’t call for a hearing or a vote, the Baby Food Safety Act’s progress was effectively halted. The stalling of vital legislation garnered a strong response from a coalition of 23 Attorneys General, including Colorado’s Phil Weiser, who petitioned the FDA It was rejected and promptly contested.

The following month, the coalition addressed a letter to the FDA and USDA reiterating the need for urgent action to protect vulnerable consumers who risk being exposed to heavy metals for several more years until adequate standards would be legislated.

Dietary Safety and Rising ASD Rates 

In a recent experiment that involved accredited third-party laboratories, 32 of the 33 baby food products purchased and analyzed by Bloomberg Law tested positive for at least two heavy metals, indicating that widespread contamination is far from being even marginally resolved. Significantly, several of the tested items were manufactured by companies that were involved in the 2021 congressional investigation.

At the start of 2023, the FDA finally achieved the Closer to Zero plan’s first goal of proposing draft action levels for lead, missing its deadline by nine months. This meager progress is neither comforting nor provides too much confidence for parents in the context of continuously increasing rates of autism nationwide.

When the CDC began tracking ASD prevalence in 2007, the national rate was one in 150. In 2021, one in 44 children were diagnosed with the condition. According to the latest data, the rate is now one in 36. Even in states like Colorado, where ASD incidence is notably lower than the national average, the rate has visibly increased from one-in-101 in 2010 to one-in-76 by 2016.

Until more stringent federal measures are adopted to address and combat heavy metal contamination efficiently, state legislatures can leverage their authority and reduce exposure risks by excluding problematic products from their social programs. In March 2023, Colorado followed the example of Oregon, Alaska, and Hawaii, removing infant rice cereals from its WIC program due to their higher levels of inorganic arsenic. 

By Jonathon Sharp.

Sharp serves as CFO at Environmental Litigation Group PCThe law firm based in Birmingham, Alabama, specializes in toxic exposure litigation and helps parents whose children develop neurologic disorders after consuming adulterated products.