'Baby Foods Are Tainted with Dangerous Levels of Arsenic, Lead, Cadmium, and Mercury', a Staff Report for the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy Committee on Oversight and Reform, comments
Inorganic arsenic, lead, cadmium, and mercury are toxic heavy metals. 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. On November 6, 2019, following reports alleging high levels of toxic heavy metals in baby foods, the 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 both makers of organic and conventional products:
• Beech-Nut Nutrition Company (Beech-Nut)
• Hain Celestial Group, Inc. (Hain), which sells baby food products under the brand name Earth’s Best Organic
• Walmart Inc. (Walmart), which sells baby food products through its private brand Parent’s Choice
• Sprout Foods, Inc. (Sprout Organic Foods)
Four of the companies—Nurture, Beech-Nut, Hain, and Gerber—responded to the Subcommittee’s requests. They produced their internal testing policies, test results for ingredients and/or finished products, and documentation about what the companies did with ingredients and/or finished products that exceeded their internal testing limits. Walmart, Campbell, and Sprout Organic Foods refused to cooperate with the Subcommittee’s investigation. The Subcommittee is greatly concerned that their lack of cooperation might be obscuring the presence of even higher levels of toxic heavy metals in their baby food products than their competitors’ products.
1. According to internal company documents and test results obtained by the Subcommittee, commercial baby foods are tainted with significant levels of toxic heavy metals, including arsenic, lead, cadmium, and mercury. Exposure to toxic heavy metals causes permanent decreases in IQ, diminished future economic productivity, and increased risk of future criminal and antisocial behavior in children. Toxic heavy metals endanger infant neurological development and long-term brain function. Specifically, the Subcommittee reports that:
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.
LEAD was present in baby foods made by all responding companies.
• Nurture (HappyBABY) sold finished baby food products that tested as high as 641 ppb lead. Almost 20% of the finished baby food products that Nurture tested contained over 10 ppb lead.
• Beech-Nut used ingredients containing as much as 886.9 ppb lead. It used many ingredients with high lead content, including 483 that contained over 5 ppb lead, 89 that contained over 15 ppb lead, and 57 that contained over 20 ppb lead.
• Hain (Earth’s Best Organic) used ingredients containing as much as 352 ppb lead. Hain used many ingredients with high lead content, including 88 that tested over 20 ppb lead and six that tested over 200 ppb lead.
• Gerber used ingredients that tested as high as 48 ppb lead; and used many ingredients containing over 20 ppb lead.
CADMIUM was present in baby foods made by all responding companies.
• Beech-Nut used 105 ingredients that tested over 20 ppb cadmium. Some tested much higher, up to 344.55 ppb cadmium.
• Hain (Earth’s Best Organic) used 102 ingredients in its baby food that tested over 20 ppb cadmium. Some tested much higher, up to 260 ppb cadmium.
• Sixty-five percent of Nurture (HappyBABY) finished baby food products contained more than 5 ppb cadmium.
• Seventy-five percent of Gerber’s carrots contained cadmium in excess of 5 ppb, with some containing up to 87 ppb cadmium.
MERCURY was detected in baby food of the only responding company that tested for it.
• Nurture (HappyBABY) sold finished baby food products containing as much as 10 ppb mercury.
• Beech-Nut and Hain (Earth’s Best Organic) do not even test for mercury in baby food.
• Gerber rarely tests for mercury in its baby foods.
These results are multiples higher than allowed under existing regulations for other products. For example, the Food and Drug Administration has set the maximum allowable levels in bottled water at 10 ppb inorganic arsenic, 5 ppb lead, and 5 ppb cadmium, and the Environmental Protection Agency has capped the allowable level of mercury in drinking water at 2 ppb. The test results of baby foods and their ingredients eclipse those levels: including results up to 91 times the arsenic level, up to 177 times the lead level, up to 69 times the cadmium level, and up to 5 times the mercury level.
2. Internal company standards permit dangerously high levels of toxic heavy metals, and documents revealed that the manufacturers have often sold foods that exceeded those levels.
• Nurture (HappyBABY) sold all products tested, regardless of how much toxic heavy metal the baby food contained. By company policy, Nurture’s toxic heavy metal testing is not intended for consumer safety. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has only finalized one standard—100 ppb inorganic arsenic in infant rice cereal—and Nurture set its internal standard for that product 15% higher than the FDA limit, at 115 ppb.
• Beech-Nut set internal arsenic and cadmium standards at 3,000 ppb in additives, such as vitamin mix, and 5,000 ppb lead for certain ingredients like BAN 800. These standards are the highest of any responding manufacturer.
• Hain (Earth’s Best Organic) set an internal standard of 200 ppb for arsenic, lead, and cadmium in some of its ingredients. But Hain exceeded its internal policies, using ingredients containing 353 ppb lead and 309 ppb arsenic. Hain justified deviations above its ingredient testing standards based on “theoretical calculations,” even after Hain admitted to FDA that its testing underestimated final product toxic heavy metal levels.
3. The Subcommittee has grave concerns about baby food products manufactured by Walmart (Parent’s Choice), Sprout Organic Foods, and Campbell (Plum Organics). These companies refused to cooperate with the Subcommittee’s investigation. The Subcommittee is greatly concerned that their lack of cooperation might obscure the presence of even higher levels of toxic heavy metals in their baby food products, compared to their competitors’ products.
• Walmart sells Parent’s Choice and Parent’s Choice Organic products for babies as young as four months.
• Sprout Organic Foods sells organic products for babies as young as six months. It is owned by North Castle Partners, a Greenwich, Connecticut– based private equity firm.
• Campbell sells Plum Organics products for babies as young as four months.
• Independent testing of Walmart, Sprout Organic Foods, and Campbell products has confirmed that their baby foods contain concerning levels of toxic heavy metals.
4. The Trump administration ignored a secret industry presentation to federal regulators revealing increased risks of toxic heavy metals in baby foods. On August 1, 2019, FDA received a secret slide presentation from Hain (Earth’s Best Organic), which revealed that:
• Corporate policies to test only ingredients, not final products, underrepresent the levels of toxic heavy metals in baby foods. In 100% of the Hain baby foods tested, inorganic arsenic levels were higher in the finished baby food than the company estimated they would be based on individual ingredient testing. Inorganic arsenic was between 28% and 93% higher in the finished products;
• Many of Hain’s baby foods were tainted with high levels of inorganic arsenic—half of its brown rice baby foods contained over 100 ppb inorganic arsenic; its average brown rice baby food contained 97.62 ppb inorganic arsenic; and
• Naturally occurring toxic heavy metals may not be the only problem causing the unsafe levels of toxic heavy metals in baby foods; rather, baby food producers like Hain may be adding ingredients that have high levels of toxic heavy metals into their products, such as vitamin/mineral pre-mix.
This presentation made clear that ingredient testing is inadequate, and that only final product testing can measure the true danger posed by baby foods. The Trump FDA took no new action in response. To this day, baby foods containing toxic heavy metals bear no label or warning to parents. Manufacturers are free to test only ingredients, or, for the vast majority of baby foods, to conduct no testing at all. FDA has only finalized one metal standard for one narrow category of baby food, setting a 100 ppb inorganic arsenic standard for infant rice cereal. But this FDA standard is far too high to protect against the neurological effects on children.
5. The Subcommittee makes the following recommendations:
• Mandatory testing—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 toxic heavy metals permitted in baby foods. One level for each metal should apply across all baby foods. And the level should be set to protect babies against the neurological effects of toxic heavy metals; and
• Parental vigilance—Parents should avoid baby foods that contain ingredients testing high in toxic heavy metals, such as rice products. Instituting recommendations one through four will give parents the information they need to make informed decisions to protect their babies.
6. Baby food manufacturers hold a special position of public trust. Consumers believe that they would not sell products that are unsafe. Consumers also believe that the federal government would not knowingly permit the sale of unsafe baby food. As this staff report reveals, baby food manufacturers and the Trump administration’s federal regulators have broken the faith.