The FDA’s Close To Zero Plan Still Allows Toxic Baby Food On Shelves

found dangerous amounts of heavy metal concentrations, namely arsenic, lead, cadmium, and mercury, in baby foods
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On February 4, 2021, the Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy found dangerous amounts of heavy metal concentrations, namely arsenic, lead, cadmium, and mercury, in baby foods from several popular US baby food manufacturers. However, only 4 out of the 7 companies that were solicited had responded. The Subcommittee’s findings are concerning.

There is ample research that shows how continued exposure to arsenic, lead, cadmium, and mercury can lead to decreased IQ levels, increased risks of antisocial behavior, and the development of autism spectrum disorders. The FDA’s reaction to this news has been swift, yet specialists say that there is still much it can do to ensure safer consumer products intended for infant nutrition.

Findings Revealing the Shocking Extent of Toxic Metal Contents in Baby Food

The heavy metal snowball effect began in October 2019 when Healthy Babies Bright Futures’ independent research uncovered shocking findings concerning the contents of baby food. Specifically, out of 186 baby food containers of 13 different food types across 61 brands, only 9 containers showed no signs of neurotoxins. That’s a mere 5% of products registering as clean, while the other 95% of tested products were tainted with at least one heavy metal compound.

Even though the report’s findings demonstrate problematic standards and practices, the targeted manufacturers disagree. They expressed their dissatisfaction with the report’s conclusions citing “tone bias and inaccuracies.”

Following the previous independent research, the Subcommittee’s report from February 4, 2021, dug a bit deeper and uncovered severe questionable practices of baby food manufacturers, specifically, insufficient product testing and knowingly allowing high heavy metal concentrations in their products to stand out. Some of the leading US enterprises whose products have been found to contain dangerous amounts of heavy metals include Nurture, Beech-Nut, Hain, Gerber, Walmart, Campbell, and Sprout Foods.

One would expect a prompt corporate reply when product quality is questioned. However, this was not the case for Walmart, Campbell, and Sprout, who refused to cooperate with the Subcommittee’s demands and investigative efforts.

One could assume that a probable reason for their reluctance is the elevated levels of toxic contaminants across multiple products. However, some improvements concerning regulatory practices have taken place. For example, Beech-Nut has voluntarily recalled tainted products and took a step back from the market indefinitely. Conversely, Gerber was reluctant to recall products suspected to be contaminated. Likewise, Walmart failed to justify why it has allowed dangerously high arsenic levels in its products since 2018.

The lack of an immediate response from most baby food manufacturers indicates that they are not in a hurry to improve their safety standards. One would think that a period of six to seven months would be more than sufficient to implement toxin-reducing strategies and ensure the safety of baby foods. That hasn’t been the case. A follow-up report from September 2021 indicates that even more baby food products than previously believed seem to be tainted with heavy metals. Very few corporate measures are taken to prevent contamination, which has not gone unnoticed.

The FDA’s Measures Are Lacking Urgency and Practicability

The FDA’s response has been to implement the Closer to Zero action plan, which aims to reduce the exposure to heavy metals in baby food drastically. However, the FDA’s Closer to Zero Plan may not be sufficiently efficient for manufacturers to phase out contaminants in their products voluntarily. It’s not in their interest to implement safety measures that would entail further costs in their manufacturing process. This leaves the FDA to impose regulatory actions that the manufacturing companies must adhere to. However, achieving this goal follows a lengthy and somewhat impractical four-stage process.

While the FDA’s approach seems structurally sound, its intended target date for implementation lacks urgency. Actions aimed at reducing toxins would span until at least 2024 and, in some cases, even beyond that date. Specialists in the field appreciate and welcome the plan. However, they consider its timeline unnecessarily long and potentially dangerous for the intended consumers.

While the FDA works out its plan to eradicate heavy metals from baby foods, these foods are still being sold and kept on shelves. They are still being consumed by children whose digestive tracts absorb four times more substances than adults. At the same time, their immunity is still developing, and they are more susceptible to harmful toxins.

Moreover, heavy metals are associated with long-lasting health hazards that affect the quality of life well beyond childhood. Allowing unsafe food products that can produce such an impact to be marketed until 2024 is unjustifiable. The FDA’s slow response to tackle the issue has garnered the attention of concerned representatives and a coalition of 24 attorneys general.

Baby Food Safety Act of 2021 – A proposal that Could End Current Health Crisis

The FDA’s slow progress in addressing this issue constitutes a genuine concern for one of the most vulnerable groups in our society. As a result, Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi proposed a bill called the Baby Safety Food Act 2021 to the Senate to demand more involvement from both the FDA and manufacturers. This bill would impose precise levels of toxins allowed in baby food products and progressively mitigate said toxins over time. Other measures intended to ensure baby food safety are final product testing and biannual transparent reports from manufacturers. Public awareness campaigns and financing research to improve crop quality are also recommended.

Following the September 2021 report, the bill’s authors issued a follow-up alleging that industry players cut corners and prioritize profits over the health of infants. Even more worrisome is that the bill entered the Senate on March 25, 2021, and is still pending. The lack of urgency in implementing actionable safety standards from both manufacturers and authorities has attracted the attention of a coalition of 24 attorneys general led by New York Attorney General Letitia James. The coalition submitted a petition to the FDA that echoes the underlying goals of the Baby Food Safety Act of 2021.

The petition’s authors reinforce demands for better-defined measures and standards concerning manufacturers. They cite the manufacturers’ failure to implement the recommended measures seven months after being notified and likewise urge the FDA to fast-forward the implementation of its Closer to Zero action plan. A more urgent April 2022 implementation date should be considered instead of the original time frame spanning until 2024.

Finally, while the FDA does set limits on the heavy metal contents in other consumable goods such as bottled water, juice, and candy, store-bought baby foods remain a staple in every child’s life. They should, without a doubt, be fit for consumption. Conversely, the FDA has taken actionable measures to address only one heavy metal in a single type of baby food product: infant rice cereal. The reasons why the authority is not actively enforcing critically important regulations to ensure the safety of baby foods are debatable.

One thing that is not debatable or acceptable is the FDA allowing such products to be marketed and continue to affect children for another two years until it finally adopts efficient measures.

Jonathan Sharp is the CFO at Environmental Litigation Group, PC, a law firm that handles toxic exposure claims in Birmingham, Alabama. Mr. Sharp manages the firm’s assets, client relations, financial analysis, and case evaluations, among his responsibilities.

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