Guest Opinion. In the winter of 2021, a report exposing four baby food manufacturers for allowing dangerous concentrations of heavy metals in their products was made public. Parents nationwide were appalled, but most thought the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) would take immediate action to tackle this serious issue. Instead, the agency has developed a problematic strategy – the Closer to Zero plan

According to the FDA, this plan will “meaningfully reduce exposure to toxic elements over time through a science-based, iterative process.” The phrase that makes it troublesome is “over time,” as the agency estimates its strategy would come to fruition in 2024 or even later. Still, the Baby Food Safety Act of 2021 provides a glimmer of hope.

How Serious Is the Problem of Heavy Metals in Baby Food?

The 2019 study “What’s in My Baby Food?” by non-profit Healthy Babies Bright Futures prompted Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-IL) to launch a congressional investigation into baby food. The investigation found that 95 percent of baby food on the U.S. market contains at least one toxic heavy metal. The following are some of the most unsettling findings of the congressional report.

Beech-Nut, one of the oldest baby food manufacturers in the country, was found using raw ingredients with over 900 parts per billion (ppb) arsenic when the safe limit is 10 ppb. Another popular baby food company, Nurture, was discovered selling baby food that contained as much as 641 ppb of lead when the maximum limit is five ppb.

Children are highly vulnerable to exposure to heavy metals, as they have a greater nutrient uptake by the gastrointestinal tract. Exposure to heavy metals from infancy may increase risk of autism and other neurodevelopmental problems, such as learning disabilities, behavioral abnormalities, lower I.Q., cognitive damage, and ADHD. 

The Closer to Zero Plan: Sluggish with Too Many Shortcomings

Thought out as a four-step strategy, the Closer to Zero plan entails unnecessary action that slows it down considerably. Specifically, the first two steps of the plan, “evaluate the scientific basis for action levels” and “propose action levels,” can be skipped entirely. The agency should be aware that other reputable health organizations have already set safe limits for dangerous heavy metals in baby food. 

Only the third step of the Closer to Zero plan implies concrete and worthwhile action: “assessing the feasibility and achievability of the safe limits.” The FDA should ensure every manufacturer across the U.S. has the means necessary to produce safe and nourishing baby food. This can be achieved by encouraging baby food companies to source their raw ingredients from organic farmers, for instance.

Other problematic aspects concerning the Closer to Zero plan include failing to consider the cumulative impact of heavy metals on the neurodevelopment of children and failing to define what the terms “as low as possible” and “children’s food” mean. 

Not only parents are outraged by the FDA’s lack of more aggressive action; on October 21, 2021, a coalition of 24 Attorneys General petitioned the agency and urged it to take more radical action.

The Baby Food Safety Act, A Viable Alternative

On March 25, 2021, Krishnamoorthi proposed the Baby Food Safety Act, which would immediately set limits on arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury. Furthermore, the bill would encourage the FDA to become more involved in monitoring baby food manufacturers.

Moreover, the Baby Food Safety Act would entail stricter regulations for manufacturers, as facilities that handle infant and toddler food would have to have specific plans to ensure their products adhere to the limits on heavy metals. The FDA would also be able to recall adulterated or misbranded baby food.

How Baby Food Manufacturers Can Stay Ethical and Maintain a Good Reputation

Perhaps the most important practice baby food manufacturers should implement is periodic testing for these contaminants in their ingredients and finished products. While testing a sample of food costs between $50 and $100, they can sign a mutually beneficial contract with a reputable laboratory. Alternatively, baby food companies can use this method, which is approved by the FDA.

If the baby food manufacturer has to comply with the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), it should also implement the Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (HACCP) system. Recognized internationally, the HACCP system ensures the safety of consumers by helping baby food manufacturers test for dangerous contaminants, including heavy metals. Finally, a baby food company that wants to act ethically will immediately recall one or multiple lots of products if they are unsafe to consume. 

Jonathan Sharp is the Chief Financial Officer at Environmental Litigation Group, P.C. The law firm is headquartered in Birmingham, Alabama, and its main area of practice is toxic exposure. Its attorneys and their legal team assist the parents of children who developed autism due to having been fed tainted baby food, among many diverse clients.

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