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FDA falls behind in review of heavy metals in baby food

Agency has yet to introduce guidance on arsenic or mercury levels in foods for children under age 2

The FDA’s Closer to Zero initiative, launched in 2021, aims to lower the amount of lead, mercury, cadmium and arsenic in the food supply to the lowest levels possible.
The FDA’s Closer to Zero initiative, launched in 2021, aims to lower the amount of lead, mercury, cadmium and arsenic in the food supply to the lowest levels possible. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Food and Drug Administration is behind schedule in its own plans to address the level of lead and mercury in baby foods, and Capitol Hill Democrats are taking note.

The FDA’s Closer to Zero initiative, launched in 2021, aims to lower the amount of lead, mercury, cadmium and arsenic in the food supply to the lowest levels possible. On Tuesday, the FDA announced draft guidance stating that lead levels should be no higher than 10 parts per billion in fruits, vegetables and meats packaged in baby food jars, pouches, tubs and boxes for children under age 2.

But the FDA was supposed to release this guidance in April 2022, according to its own timeline. And the agency has not yet introduced guidance on arsenic or mercury levels in foods for children under age 2.

The FDA also said it would propose guidance for mercury levels in infant food in January 2023. It has yet to do so. 

“It is alarming that little tangible progress has been made on the Closer to Zero action plan, despite the seriousness and severity of this issue, and that to date, FDA has only issued draft guidance on one of the heavy metals,” Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill. — along with Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., and Rep. Tony Cardenas, D-Calif. — wrote in a letter to FDA Commissioner Robert Califf on Friday.

The FDA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In 2021, the House Oversight and Reform Committee issued a report finding that many store-bought baby food products contain dangerously high levels of toxic heavy metals — as much as 91 times the limits of arsenic, 177 times the limits of lead, 69 times the limits of cadmium and 5 times the limits of mercury permitted in bottled drinking water. The FDA pledged to take action with its Closer to Zero initiative. 

Califf estimated that Tuesday’s proposed actions could lead to as much as a 24 percent to 27 percent reduction in exposure to lead from these foods. 

It’s not possible to remove all heavy metals from the food supply because fruits and vegetables absorb lead and other contaminants from their environments, just as they absorb nutrients.

While the presence of some lead does not make the food unsafe for adults, developing brains are much more sensitive to heavy metals. There is no safe blood level for lead in children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and even low levels of lead can hurt a growing child’s brain and nervous system development.

“Although it is not possible to remove these elements entirely from the food supply, we expect that the recommended action levels will cause manufacturers to implement agricultural and processing measures to lower lead levels in their food products below the proposed action levels,” the FDA said in a press release Tuesday.  

Comments on the draft guidance for lowering levels of lead in foods are due March 27. The Democratic lawmakers asked Califf to finalize the lead guidance as soon as possible and expedite action on mercury and arsenic levels in baby food.

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