House subcommittee finds unsafe levels of toxic heavy metals in baby food

Over the past several years, alarming evidence has emerged exposing the presence of harmful levels of toxic heavy metals in store bought baby food. In 2021, the U.S. House Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy published a report identifying high levels of lead, arsenic, mercury, and cadmium in baby food manufactured by certain companies, including: 

  • Beech-Nut
  • Gerber
  • Hain Celestial Group - Earth’s Best Organic
  • Nurture - Happy Family Organics and Happy BABY
  • Plum Organics
  • Sprout Foods - Sprout Organic Food
  • Walmart - Parent’s Choice

As upsetting as those findings were, the lack of testing or oversight by these companies in monitoring the toxic heavy metal levels in their products was even more alarming. The report revealed internal company documents showing that several of the companies, including Beech-Nut and Nurture, did not regularly test for mercury. 

Of the above companies, Nurture was the only company to test the finished product—the others seemingly had no idea the amount or frequency of toxic heavy metal contamination in their finished products. For many of these companies, even when they did know their ingredients or products contained dangerously high levels of toxic heavy metals, they still sold those products to consumers. 

In the wake of the Subcommittee’s report, the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) created the Closer to Zero Campaign with a goal of reducing the levels of toxic heavy metals in baby food by 2024. As a part of this campaign, the FDA is currently studying the toxic effects of cadmium, lead, arsenic, and mercury to determine an interim reference level to calculate the maximum intake safe for daily consumption. 

On May 9, 2024, the Baby Food Safety Act was introduced in Congress. This bill empowers the FDA to enforce scientifically established limits on heavy metals in commercially available baby food. It also proposes requirements for manufacturer sampling, testing, and recordkeeping for contaminants like heavy metals, and would bring greater transparency to contaminants in imported food products. Prior to the introduction of this bill—which is still going through the legislative process—the FDA had no enforcement authority against manufacturers of baby food. 

Toxic Heavy Metals and Permanent Neurologic Damage 

Why does a report linking these two matter? Ingestion of cadmium, arsenic, lead, and mercury by infants and toddlers is linked to permanent neurologic damage. Infants and toddlers are especially vulnerable. This is due to several factors, including a high ratio of food intake to bodyweight, greater intestinal absorption of food, and low effective excretion of toxins. Essentially infants and toddlers eat more than adults relative to their weight, absorb more of whatever they eat, and their bodies cannot get rid of all the toxins absorbed. 

Scientists have known for years that toxic heavy metals, like lead, cause permanent neurologic damage in children. Now, evidence is emerging suggesting cadmium, arsenic, and mercury are also linked to causing permanent neurologic damage in children. Specifically, scientists are finding links between the development of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and these toxic heavy metals. Science is also still emerging on the synergistic effects of toxic heavy metal exposure, as many of the baby food products contained multiple toxic heavy metals.