New FDA guidelines call for reducing — but not eliminating — lead in baby food

The Food and Drug Administration released draft guidelines Tuesday that detail the maximum amount of lead that can be found in baby food products, and is part of the organization’s Closer to Zero initiative aiming to reduce childhood exposure to harmful contaminants in food. 

“The proposed action levels would result in significant reductions in exposures to lead from food while ensuring availability of nutritious foods,” said the FDA on Twitter.

Prolonged exposure to lead may result in “learning disabilities, behavior difficulties, and lowered IQ,” as well “immunological, cardiovascular, renal, and reproductive and/or developmental effects,” said the FDA in the report, while explaining that lead is “widely present” in the environment both naturally, and in part due to human activities.

“Because lead may be present in environments where food crops used to make food intended for babies and young children are grown, various foods may contain small amounts of lead,” said the FDA. “Potential sources of lead in food include contaminated soil where crops are grown, contaminated water, atmospheric deposition from industrial activities, and old lead-containing equipment used to process food.”

There is no truly safe level of lead, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

“Today’s announcement to set tougher standards for toxic metals in baby foods is important progress by the FDA,” Scott Faber, senior vice president of government affairs at the nonprofit Environmental Working Group, said in a statement. 

The new guidance — which is not mandatory for food manufacturers — outlines the following amounts as being acceptable in baby food for children under the age of two:

  • 10 parts per billion, or ppb, for fruits, vegetables (excluding single-ingredient root vegetables), mixtures (including grain and meat-based mixtures), yogurts, custards/puddings, and single-ingredient meats;
  • 20 ppb for root vegetables (single ingredient); and
  • 20 ppb for dry infant cereals.

“The purpose of this guidance is to provide information to industry on the action levels for lead in food intended for babies and young children,” said the FDA in the guidance.

“…our Closer to Zero action plan outlines other actions we will take to further reduce lead (as well as other toxic elements) in food and our expectation is that industry will strive for continual reductions over time.”

The plan does not enumerate new guidelines or plans of reduction for other toxic chemicals found in baby food, such as cadmium, arsenic or mercury. 

“The action levels released today for lead, the first toxic heavy metal the agency is addressing, are not enough to protect the next generation of babies from harmful heavy metals in their food,” read a statement from advocacy organization Healthy Babies Bright Futures.

The group also pointed out that the FDA’s new regulations do not apply to teething biscuits, which its studies have shown account for seven of the 10 highest lead levels in the more than 1,000 food tests the organization has conducted.

Young mother grocery shopping
Young mother grocery shopping

d3sign / Getty Images

“These proposed action levels don’t do enough to get us closer to zero,” said Charlotte Brody, the organization’s national director.

“The action levels released by the FDA today for the most part put a rubber stamp on the status quo — signifying that the current levels of lead in baby food are ‘close enough.’ Why has the FDA’s Closer to Zero program spent years to create proposed guidance that won’t do enough to make baby food safer?”

Jane Houlihan, the group’s research director, told CBS News, “As it stands, it appears that FDA is choosing round numbers it thinks the industry can easily meet. But there are plenty of actions companies can take to lower levels, from testing and choosing fields with lower soil lead levels, to adjusting soil additives and choosing crop varieties that accumulate less lead.”

“We’ve seen with infant rice cereal and apple juice (two foods with arsenic and/or lead limits in place already) that when FDA issues action levels, industry can significantly reduce the amounts of these toxic metals in their products,” Houlihan said.

According to an analysis commissioned by the group, children under two years of age in the U.S. lose over 11 million IQ points from exposure to heavy metals in food.

Last year, an HBBF study found that 94% of manufactured baby foods, family foods and homemade purees made from purchased raw foods contained detectable amounts of one or more heavy metals — lead, arsenic, mercury and cadmium.

Lead was also found in 90% of manufactured baby food, 80% of store-bought family food and homemade purees. 

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