The FDA announced proposed limits for the heavy metal in processed baby food after six years of studying foods like mashed vegetables and fruits that contain lead, a potent neurotoxicant already known to harm the brains of developing babies and young children. This draft guidance, which could reduce exposure to lead in little kids’ diets by about 25%, is unenforceable. If adopted, the agency could go after companies producing food exceeding the limits, including conventional first baby foods like applesauce and dry cereal. But adoption of proposed FDA limits can take a while. We don’t have another six years to get this right.
Even if the limits should get adopted, experts worry they aren’t stringent enough. Jane Houlihan, research director for Healthy Babies Bright Futures, a nonprofit, told the New York Times that she is disappointed in the guidelines. “It doesn’t go far enough to protect babies from neurodevelopmental damage from lead exposures,” she said. “Lead is in almost every baby food we’ve tested, and the action levels that FDA has set will influence almost none of that food.” These guidelines only address lead in processed food for children under two, and unfortunately, there are additional contaminants to be concerned about. Back in 2019, Healthy Babies Bright Futures created a report that found toxic metals, not just lead, in 95% of baby foods.
No safe level of lead
As the scientific community has long agreed, there is no safe level of lead. Everyone from the CDC to the American Academy of Pediatrics concur.
The World Health Organization includes lead, as well as arsenic, cadmium, and mercury, in the top 10 chemicals of concern for infants and children. No one should be ingesting any of these chemicals, but babies and young children are uniquely vulnerable as they’re developing. Pound for pound they take in higher amounts of toxins into their tiny bodies than adults do. Even small doses of lead and other contaminants can be harmful for babies and children.
Baby Food Safety Act stalled
If you’re feeling shock, confusion, and anger that lead is in baby food, you’re not alone. Parents should not have to worry about what’s in the baby food they purchase. Back in 2021, the Baby Food Safety Act was proposed to address these concerns. For a brief moment, it felt like there was a possibility that lead and other contaminants would be routinely monitored via testing food—and strongly curtailed. Unfortunately, despite a congressional subcommittee investigation that found “significant levels” of toxic heavy metals in baby food, the Baby Food Safety Act stalled. So far it has not been reintroduced for 2023.
How toxic chemicals wind up in baby food
Growing food is an ecosystem. There are contaminants in the world, they make their way to the soil, and plants pull them through their roots into their edible leaves and fruits. Some, like lead, are naturally occurring as well as in our soil from leaded gasoline and lead paint, according to the CDC. Others are pollutants washed by rain into rivers, lakes, and streams, and then into groundwater. Pollutants can include fertilizers, factory runoff, and even roadway auto emissions. Contaminated plants are then used to make food. Some food has more contaminants than others; rice, for example, is known to contain high levels of arsenic, which is associated with certain cancers, because of the way it is farmed in flooded fields. According to the New York Times, heavy metals can also make their way into baby food through fortified vitamin mixes. Some baby food companies voluntarily monitor levels of chemicals in their food, and the FDA has set some limits, depending on the type of food. But again, these guidelines aren’t always strict or enforceable.
What can parents do?
Because the contaminants to avoid are inside the plants, washing and peeling fruits and vegetables isn’t the answer. Testing soil and trying new farming methods in contaminated fields could help, especially if you’re growing your own food. If you have a farmer you can speak with directly, it’s worth a conversation. Most of us do not.
Meanwhile, families would do well to continue to exercise caution when feeding babies and kids. Here’s how.
- Limit processed foods.
- Make your own baby food, the safest comes from a local organic source or your own garden. If you have reason to be concerned about your soil, like if you live in home with exterior lead paint, in an urban environment, or near a conventional farm or orchard, you can always test it. Or set up a container garden.
- Limit rice and sweet potato baby food because both tend to absorb more pollutants. Start your baby on dry oatmeal cereal instead of rice.
- Avoid snacks like crackers and puffs, which Consumer Reports found had higher levels of heavy metals.
- Demand that our government ensure the food our babies consume is safe before it hits the shelves. The FDA is seeking public comments about their proposed levels for lead in processed foods.