Consumer Reports study finds “concerning levels” of heavy metals in baby and toddler foods

A new report released by Consumer Reports shows “concerning levels” of lead, cadmium, and inorganic arsenic in baby and toddler foods. The watchdog organization tested 50 nationally distributed packaged baby and toddler foods and found measurable levels of at least one of the three heavy metals in every product, with levels they deemed “worrisome” in about 2/3 of the products. The report builds on previous findings from the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) about heavy metals in infant and toddler food and points to an urgent need for action from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and food manufacturers to better protect children.

“While the effects of exposure to a heavy metal in a single food may not affect a child, what is concerning is the cumulative impact of exposure to low levels of cadmium, inorganic arsenic, and lead from all food in the diet,” said Tom Neltner, EDF Health’s Chemicals Policy Director. “Protecting children’s ability to learn and thrive demands that we drive down exposure to heavy metals from all sources – including food.”

For the study, Consumer Reports purchased three samples of 50 baby and toddler foods – available in the spring of 2018 – from different retailers across the country and tested the products for cadmium, lead, mercury, and inorganic arsenic. The foods included cereals, snacks, entrees, and fruits and vegetables. Key takeaways from the testing included:

  • Each of the 50 products had measurable levels of cadmium, lead, and/or arsenic.
  • About 2/3 of the products had at least one heavy metal at levels considered “worrisome” by Consumer Reports.
  •  Organic foods were as likely as conventional foods to have heavy metals, because the organic standard is focused on pesticides and not these contaminants.
  • Products with low or no measureable levels of heavy metals indicate manufacturers can achieve safer foods.

“Food that is marketed for babies should be held to a higher standard,” said Maricel Maffini, EDF’s science advisor for food. “Consumer Reports was right in calling for a goal of no measurable levels of these heavy metals in baby food and that FDA needs to set aggressive incremental targets to drive progress.”

EDF has previously reported on the issue of lead and other heavy metals in infant and toddler foods. In June 2017, we released Lead in Food: A Hidden Health Threat. The report examined data collected and analyzed by FDA from 2003 to 2013 and found lead detected in 20% of baby food samples compared to 14% for other foods. Eight types of baby foods, including fruit juices, root vegetables, and teething biscuits, had detectable lead in more than 40% of the samples.

In December 2017, EDF provided an update to the report with FDA testing data for lead from 2014 to 2016. It suggested good news for fruit juices (a category that Consumer Reports did not test) but stubbornly high detection rates for snacks and root vegetables. Consumer Reports reaffirms the need for greater diligence from FDA and baby food manufacturers.

While FDA has taken important steps on this issue by committing to reduce levels of heavy metals to the greatest extent practicable, the agency still needs to take concrete action to drive down cadmium, lead, and inorganic arsenic levels in food – especially children’s food. To accelerate needed action, EDF recommends that FDA update its standards and make clear that international standards for lead in fruit juice are inadequate. Baby food manufacturers must test for heavy metals throughout the supply chain in order to identify and reduce all sources of contamination.

Healthy eating requires safe, nutritious food. EDF hopes Consumer Reports’ new study draws attention to the issue and prompts food manufacturers and FDA to do more to drive down levels of heavy metals in our food supply.

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