Congressional investigators find more cases of baby food with toxic heavy metals

Congressional investigators find more cases of baby food with toxic heavy metals
© (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

The House Oversight and Reform Committee released a report on Wednesday stating that the baby food industry knowingly underreported high levels of toxic heavy metals in their products and kept them on the market anyway.

Chairman of the Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy Raja KrishnamoorthiSubramanian (Raja) Raja KrishnamoorthiUS braces for omicron to hit Former Washington Football Team cheerleaders, employees to protest outside stadium Rapper Wale to headline Washington Football Team halftime show MORE (D-Ill.) lambasted the baby food industry for what he characterized as its duplicitous practices.

“My subcommittee’s investigation has pulled back the curtain on the baby foods industry, and each revelation has been more damning than the last. Today’s report reveals that companies not only under-report the high levels of toxic content in their baby food but also knowingly keep toxic products on the market," said Krishnamoorthi.

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Earlier this year, the subcommittee released a report in which it found that some baby food companies “permit dangerously high levels of toxic heavy metals" such as arsenic, cadmium and lead.

Soon after this report was released the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced it would be "putting into action a plan aimed at reducing toxic elements in foods for babies and young children to levels as low as is reasonably achievable.” 

The staff report specifically looked at the companies that sell the baby food product lines Happy Family Organics, Beech-Nut Nutrition Company, Earth’s Best Organic and Gerber. 

The report released this week found that rice products from Beech-Nut and Gerber contained arsenic levels that exceeded the FDA's limit of 100 parts per billion (ppb). Beech-Nut's rice cereal was tested to have 125 ppb of inorganic arsenic while Gerber's rice cereal had 116 ppb inorganic arsenic.

The subcommittee found that Beech-Nut's 2021 recall of products had been incomplete and said Gerber failed to recall any of its toxic products.

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They recommended that the FDA speed up its timeline for establishing limits on toxic heavy metals and to require companies to conduct finished-product testing. The February report had found that most baby food companies do not test their products for heavy metals, but estimate levels based on testing done on the ingredients.

"The testing practices for toxic heavy metals used by most of the baby food industry are flawed and underestimate the toxic heavy metal content of their products," the report said.

The subcommittee also found that Hain, the maker of Earth's Best Organic, underestimated the level of heavy metals 100 percent of the time, with levels between 28 and 93 higher in the finished product than what they estimated based on ingredients.

Another company that the subcommittee criticized was Sprout Foods, Inc, which only relies on its suppliers to test ingredients for heavy metals once a year, according to the report. This practice was referred to as the "most reckless" in the industry by the report.

Apart from baby food makers, the subcommittee also scrutinized the testing practices of retail giant Walmart and said its heavy metal standards were "troubling."

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"Walmart does not appear to conduct any testing of its baby food products for toxic heavy metals. Instead, it sets maximum toxic heavy metal levels and asks the manufacturer of Walmart’s private label to self-certify that products meet those levels. It does not appear that Walmart collects any test data on the toxic heavy metal levels of its baby foods to check the accuracy of the certifications," the report read.

When reached by The Hill, Walmart said it was "committed to providing high quality private brand baby food products that are safe and nutritious" and stated its standards "aligned with or below the FDA requirements for naturally occurring elements."

The company noted that many grocery stores and retailers do not require suppliers to submit test reports. Instead, Walmart requires that suppliers be Global Food Safety Initiative-certified and meet the initiative's specifications.

In response to the report earlier this year, Happy Family Organics claimed to not sell any products "with contaminant ranges outside of the limits set by the FDA" and said it was "disappointed" at how the subcommittee had used the data it had provided.

When reached for comment by The Hill, Gerber said in a statement, "While the Subcommittee report notes proposed limits on specific heavy metals, those are based on proposed standards from the Baby Food Safety Act, which are not current law or regulation. All Gerber foods have and continue to meet all applicable guidelines and limits set by the FDA, the governing body for safety regulations in the food industry."

Gerber added that it was "committed to reducing the levels of heavy metals in our baby foods to the lowest levels possible."

In response to The Hill, Beech-Nut Nutrition said the subcommittee's characterization of its recall was "incorrect."

"In addition to recalling the affected lots, Beech-Nut also proactively withdrew all Beech-Nut branded Single Grain Rice Cereal products from supermarket shelves. Further, Beech-Nut decided to exit the market for its branded infant rice products because it is concerned about being able to consistently obtain rice flour well-below the FDA guidance level," the company said.

Many of the companies pointed out that the heavy metal arsenic is naturally occurring in nature and said it is impossible to omit from the food supply.