Congressional panel criticizes more brands of baby food against heavy metals

Brands under fire: The latest subcommittee report criticizes Beech-Nut for issuing only a partial recall and Gerber for not doing a recall at all after Alaska state officials discovered earlier this year that both companies had rice grains on the market that exceeded the FDA standard for arsenic.

Beech-Nut has since decided to stop selling baby products containing rice due to arsenic issues. The company said it made the decision “because it was concerned that it could routinely obtain rice flour well below the FDA guidance level.”

A spokesperson for Gerber said company officials were reviewing the report. “We have set safety and quality standards that are among the highest not only in the United States, but in the world,” said the spokesperson. “Because Gerber only believes in the highest standards, we have and will continue to cooperate fully with the Congressional subcommittee investigation.”

The panel also alleges that Plum Organics, another popular brand, sells products “tainted with high levels of toxic metals” based on test data submitted by the company. Each Plum Super Puffs rice product tested from 2017 to 2019 exceeded 200 parts per billion arsenic, according to the report. Rice puffs are popular snacks for babies and toddlers.

The FDA does not have standards for arsenic in baby foods, with the exception of rice cereals, which are said to be less than 100 ppb, according to a standard finalized in 2020. The The FDA standard for bottled water is 10 ppb.

Walmart, which sells its own private label products, was heavily criticized in the report for weakening its own internal standard for inorganic arsenic, which for a time was stricter than that of the FDA. The company’s limit was 23 ppb until 2018.

The relaxation of the company’s own standard was an “extreme reversal of direction in efforts to protect babies’ neurodevelopment,” the panel said.

“We are committed to providing high quality, private label baby food products that are safe and nutritious,” Walmart said in a statement Wednesday. The company said its demands on suppliers have always aligned or exceeded the FDA standard for arsenic.

Sprout Foods, another big brand, has come under fire for only requiring its ingredients to be tested for heavy metals once a year, a policy the subcommittee called “the most reckless testing practice among manufacturers. on the market”.

Plum and Sprout did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Wednesday. The subcommittee said the five companies named in the new report were cooperating to varying degrees with the panel’s investigations, submitting data and other information to staff.

What the panel wants: The subcommittee urges the FDA to speed up work to set its first-ever standards for heavy metals in most baby food products over the next three years, a plan the agency unveiled in April after facing to a deluge of criticism for taking slow action on the problem.

The FDA quietly began reviewing heavy metals in 2017 after an EPA study found food to be a surprisingly large source of lead exposure for young children, as POLITICO previously reported.

The subcommittee is now urging the FDA to go ahead and require baby food manufacturers to test their finished products for heavy metals instead of waiting for the standards to be finalized.

The expert group is also urging the industry to phase out all frequently tested products rich in heavy metals, such as rice, which regularly contains higher levels of arsenic due to environmental contamination from pesticides. used decades ago.

A food system problem: Regarding lead levels, arsenic, mercury, and cadmium can be found regularly in many foods, including rice, sweet potatoes, carrots, juices, and spices. Crops can absorb toxins from soils. Heavy metals are both naturally occurring and the result of widespread environmental pollution.

It’s a problem that the food supply faces more widely – not just in baby products – meaning parents can’t avoid heavy metals by preparing their own meals. Some experts believe that certain types of food processing could make the metals more concentrated. There are also concerns that some vitamins and other additives used in products may be contaminated.

Beech-Nut, a popular brand that has been criticized by the subcommittee since the start of the year, has fended off criticism. The company has assured consumers that its products are safe and noted that heavy metals are encrusted in the environment.

“Our baby food manufacturing process does not add heavy metals to the final product,” the company said in an email. “Heavy metals are found naturally in our environment. They are found in soil, water, air – and therefore are inevitable in our overall food supply.”

Foods served to babies and toddlers are of particular concern because they are more developmentally vulnerable. Even very small amounts of these neurotoxins can hamper a child’s IQ, hamper brain development, lead to behavioral problems, increase cancer risk, and increase the risk of many other diseases. Safety thresholds have not been set for most foods.

Imminent legislation: Capitol Hill Democrats still support legislation that would require the FDA to set strict limits for the four metals within a year.

The bill, which is supported by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, imposes what those limits should be: 10 parts per billion for inorganic arsenic in baby foods (15 ppb for cereals); 5 ppb for cadmium and lead (10 ppb for cereals); and 2 ppb for mercury. The bill has 21 co-sponsors in the House and five in the Senate.

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