The FDA will embark on a multiyear program to determine acceptable levels of heavy metals in baby food, in the wake of reports that showed them at high concentrations.
The FDA announced its plan, “Closer to Zero,” on April 8. It will evaluate the science and propose appropriate levels for lead, cadmium, mercury and arsenic, in consultation with manufacturers, consumers and other stakeholders.
The situation became notorious when reports surfaced, including one from a congressional subcommittee, showing high levels of heavy metals in baby and toddler food products from major manufacturers. Legislation was introduced to set limits, and at least five processors were hit with class-action lawsuits in several states.
The FDA does not yet have standards for heavy metals in baby food, except for arsenic in rice-based products. Critics pointed out that it has such standards for products consumed by adults – and in many cases, baby foods were found to exceed them.
The Closer to Zero plan is a roadmap for setting standards. The first step is to use current data to set a preliminary figure, called an interim reference level (IRL), for limits on heavy metal consumption. In 2018, the FDA proposed an IRL for lead of three micrograms per day for children. The FDA will use IRLs as a basis to determine initial limits on heavy metals in baby food; those limits will be refined with further research in consultation with stakeholders.
The situation is complicated by the fact that many heavy metals occur naturally in food, or at least are transmitted by the soil they grow in. Arsenic, for instance, often appears in rice due to its presence in irrigation water.
The FDA’s statement said that it will “take measures to ensure that limiting exposure to toxic elements in foods does not have unintended consequences,” such as making baby food less available or more expensive.