February 10, 2021
3 min read
Last week, a House of Representatives oversight subcommittee publicized the results of an investigation that confirmed reports of high levels of toxic heavy metals in popular baby foods.
According to the subcommittee report, four companies — Beech-Nut, Gerber, Hain and Nurture — responded to requests for internal documents, whereas three companies — Campbell, Sprout Organic Foods and Walmart — refused.
Healio spoke with Jackie Bowen, MPH, MS, executive director of the Clean Label Project, about the investigation and the implications it has for child health.
Question: What did the House of Representatives report say, and where did the data come from?
Answer: Following reports alleging high levels of toxic heavy metals in baby foods, the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy requested internal documents and test results from seven of the largest manufacturers of organic and conventional baby food in the U.S., including Nurture’s Happy Family, Walmart, Campbell’s Plum Organics, Gerber, Hain’s Earth’s Best, Beech-Nut and Sprout.
Key findings from their report included:
- Top baby foods are tainted with dangerous levels of inorganic arsenic, lead, cadmium and mercury.
- Industry self-regulation fails to protect consumers because manufacturers set their own dangerously high standards for toxic heavy metals levels.
- Manufacturers routinely ignore internal standards and continue to sell products with high heavy metal levels.
Q: Has the government done enough on this issue?
A: In my opinion, no. The food safety regulatory fabric in America is largely focused on pathogen and microbiological contaminants, for example, Escherichia coli, Salmonella, Listeria, etc. These are the food safety recalls you hear about related to chicken or salad mix recalls. These can cause vomiting, diarrhea or worse within 24 to 72 hours. However, there is increasing consumer, academic and medical community concern over exposure to low levels of heavy metals and their impact on long-term chronic disease.
In the past 4 years, there have been four significant consumer advocacy calls to action about the levels of heavy metals in America’s best-selling baby food — by the Clean Label Project in 2017; Consumer Reports in 2018; Healthy Babies, Bright Futures in 2019; and the House of Representatives in 2021. The question that needs to be asked is if this call to action will actually result in regulatory change.
Q: How do toxic chemicals get into baby food, and what can be done to prevent it?
A: It is important to recognize the impact that our societal choices have on both the environment and our health. Although some heavy metals are naturally occurring in the earth’s crust, human causes including mining, fracking, industrial agriculture and wastewater used for irrigation exacerbate the problem. These heavy metals — in the form of pollution — end up in the air, the water and the soil. Plants have no choice but to suck up the contaminants in the ground. If ingredient sources go unchecked by baby food brands, these contaminated plants will end up in the finished products being consumed by the most vulnerable populations.
View your dollars as a vote for the food system you believe in, and use your vote wisely.
Q: How can these contaminants affect a baby’s health?
A: WHO considers the first 1,000 days of life as critically important for long-term health and wellness. It is the window of optimum brain and immune system development. When it comes to lead, WHO, the FDA, the Environmental Protection Agency, the AAP and the CDC all independently say that there is no safe level of lead. In fact, lead has been shown to cause an increase in hyperactivity and a decrease in IQ in children.
Exposure to heavy metals can take years, sometimes decades, to manifest into chronic disease in the form of cancer or reproductive harm.
Q: What should pediatricians know about this issue and the data in this report?
A: If parents or caregivers are concerned, they should absolutely speak with their pediatrician. Encouraging diversity in diets and being mindful of certain high-risk ingredients — including rice and some root crops — can help minimize the heavy metal exposure.