A new congressional report has revealed highly dangerous levels of arsenic and other poisons in baby food. It also reveals that Walmart, Campbell Foods, and Sprout Organic Foods refused to cooperate with the subcommittee’s investigation.
“Nurture, Beech-Nut, Hain and Gerber cooperated with the subcommittee’s investigation, despite the fact that doing so exposed their reckless disregard for the health of babies,” says the 59-page report released yesterday by the U.S. House of Representatives.
“With that in mind, the subcommittee questions why Walmart (Parent’s Choice), Sprout Organic Foods, and Campbell (Plum Organics) would refuse to comply with the investigation. None of them produced testing results or specific testing standards and Sprout never even responded to the Subcommittee’s repeated inquiries.
“The subcommittee is greatly concerned that these companies might be obscuring the presence of even higher levels of toxic heavy metals in their baby food products than their competitors’ products.”
The report, requested in November 2019, reviewed four toxic heavy metals: inorganic arsenic, lead, cadmium and mercury. The Food and Drug Administration and the World Health Organization have declared them dangerous to human health, particularly to babies and children, who are most vulnerable to their neurotoxic effects. Even low levels of exposure can cause serious and often irreversible damage to brain development, according to the report.
On Nov. 6, 2019, following reports alleging high levels of toxic heavy metals in baby foods, the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy requested internal documents and test results from seven of the largest manufacturers of baby food in the United States, including makers of organic and conventional products. Those manufacturers were:
- Beech-Nut Nutrition Co.
- Hain Celestial Group Inc., which sells baby food products under the brand name Earth’s Best Organic
- Walmart Inc., which sells baby food products through its private brand Parent’s Choice
- Sprout Foods Inc. which sells baby food under the name (Sprout Organic Foods”
- Campbell Soup Co., which sells baby food products under the brand name Plum Organics
- Nurture Inc., which sells Happy Family Organics, including baby food products under the brand name HappyBABY
Arsenic was present in baby foods made by all responding companies.
Nurture (HappyBABY) sold baby foods after tests showed they contained as much as 180 parts per billion (ppb) inorganic arsenic. Over 25% of the products Nurture tested before sale contained over 100 ppb inorganic arsenic. Nurture’s testing shows that the typical baby food product it sold contained 60 ppb inorganic arsenic.
Hain (Earth’s Best Organic) sold finished baby food products containing as much as 129 ppb inorganic arsenic. Hain typically only tested its ingredients, not finished products. Documents show that Hain used ingredients testing as high as 309 ppb arsenic.
Beech-Nut used ingredients after they tested as high as 913.4 ppb arsenic. Beech-Nut routinely used high-arsenic additives that tested over 300 ppb arsenic to address product characteristics such as “crumb softness.”
Gerber used high-arsenic ingredients, using 67 batches of rice flour that had tested over 90 ppb inorganic arsenic.
The Food and Drug Administration has declared that inorganic arsenic, lead, cadmium, and mercury have “no established health benefit” and “lead to illness, impairment, and in high doses, death.”
“The subcommittee’s investigation proves that commercial baby foods contain dangerous levels of arsenic, lead, mercury, and cadmium. These toxic heavy metals pose serious health risks to babies and toddlers. Manufacturers knowingly sell these products to unsuspecting parents, in spite of internal company standards and test results, and without any warning labeling whatsoever,” says the conclusion section of the report.
The report also concludes the time is now for FDA to determine whether there is any safe exposure level for babies to inorganic arsenic, lead, cadmium, and mercury, to require manufacturers to meet those levels, and to inform consumers through labels.
A failure to release information during the previous presidential administration, the report states, did not help efforts to address the problems:
“Last year, the Trump Administration ignored new information contained in a secret industry presentation to federal regulators about toxic heavy metals in baby foods. On Aug. 1, 2019, FDA received a secret slide presentation from Hain, the maker of Earth’s Best Organic baby food, which revealed that finished baby food products contain even higher levels of toxic heavy metals than estimates based on individual ingredient test results. One heavy metal in particular, inorganic arsenic, was repeatedly found to be present at 28 percent to 93 percent higher levels than estimated.”
Suggestions and conclusions
The report suggests several steps to help resolve the heavy metal issues. One goal is to restore the public’s trust. The burden for that is on the shoulders of industry, according to the report. Manufacturers should immediately reduce the levels of toxic heavy metals in their baby foods to as close to zero as possible. If that is impossible for foods containing certain ingredients, then those ingredients should not be included in baby foods.
According to the report one example of an ingredient that might not be suitable for baby foods is rice. Throughout this report, rice appeared at or near the top of every list of dangerous baby foods.
“If certain ingredients, like rice, are highly tainted, the answer is not to simply lower toxic heavy metal levels as much as possible for those ingredients, the answer is to stop including them in baby foods. The subcommittee urges manufacturers to make this change voluntarily,” the congressional report states.
The subcommittee also recommends the following:
• Mandatory Testing: Only one of the companies reviewed by the Subcommittee routinely tests its finished baby foods, even though the industry is aware that toxic heavy metals levels are higher after food processing. Baby food manufacturers should be required by FDA to test their finished products for toxic heavy metals, not just their ingredients.
• Labeling: Manufacturers should by required by FDA to report levels of toxic heavy metals on food labels.
• Voluntary Phase-Out of Toxic Ingredients: Manufacturers should voluntarily find substitutes for ingredients that are high in toxic heavy metals, or phase out products that have high amounts of ingredients that frequently test high in toxic heavy metals, such as rice.
• FDA Standards: FDA should set maximum levels of inorganic arsenic, lead, cadmium, and mercury permitted in baby foods. One level for each metal should apply across all baby foods. The level should be set to protect babies against the neurological effects of toxic heavy metals.
• Parental Vigilance: Parents should avoid baby food products that contain ingredients testing high in heavy metals, such as rice products. The implementation of recommendations one through four will give parents the information they need to make informed decisions to protect their babies.
Report’s deep dive into the context of arsenic
The subcommittee report says in terms of baby food there are only two FDA regulations for specific products — an unenforceable draft guidance issued in July 2013, but never finalized, recommending an action level of 10 ppb for inorganic arsenic in single-strength (ready-to-drink) apple juice, and an August 2020 final guidance, setting an action level for inorganic arsenic in infant rice cereals at 100 ppb.
Arsenic is ranked number one among substances present in the environment that pose the most significant potential threat to human health, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.
Studies have concluded that arsenic exposure has a “significant negative effect on neurodevelopment in children.” This negative effect is most pronounced in Full Scale IQ, and more specifically, in verbal and performance domains as well as memory. A study of Maine schoolchildren exposed to arsenic in drinking water found that children exposed to water with an arsenic concentration level greater than 5 parts per billion (ppb) “showed significant reductions in Full Scale IQ, working memory, perceptual reasoning and other functioning.
A study of children in Spain found that increasing arsenic exposure led to a decrease in the children’s global motor, gross motor, and fine motor function scores. Boys in particular were more susceptible to arsenic’s neurotoxicity.