Companies can and should do more to eliminate lead in food – our kids’ health depends on it

As a parent, environmental professional and wife of an accomplished chef, I spend a lot of time thinking about food and how to make the best choices when it comes to feeding my family. That’s why EDF’s report detailing lead in food has me so concerned.

Usually I think about, and maybe even felt guilty at times, about the nutritional content and environmental impacts of the food I choose, but it never occurred to me to worry that the food itself could be contaminated with lead.  And, let’s just be clear – there is no scientific evidence of a safe level of lead in blood. Lead can harm a child’s developing brain, potentially leading to learning problems, lower IQ, as well as cause behavioral problems.

While I knew that the major exposures to lead come from lead-based paint, contaminated soil and dust, and drinking water, I didn’t realize that in order to have a comprehensive plan to protect my child from harm, contaminated food should also be on my list.

According to EDF’s analysis of FDA data from 2003 to 2013, 20% of baby food and 14% of other food sampled contained detectable levels of lead. The baby food items with the highest rates of detection include grape, mixed fruit, apple, and pear juices, sweet potatoes and carrots, arrowroot cookies, and teething biscuits.

The following chart details the percentage of various food samples where lead was detected.

There are two key takeaways from this chart.

  1. Some product types have a high percent of lead detection across the samples, while other product types have much smaller percentages.
  2. While many samples of products have detected levels of lead, every category has some products with no detectable levels of lead. This suggests that lead in food is a problem with a solution.

So, what is a food company to do?

  • Step 1 – Set a goal of less than 1 parts per billion (ppb) of lead in baby food and other foods marketed to young children
  • Step 2 – Test for lead
  • Step 3 – Identify the source of contamination – is it the raw ingredients, something the food is exposed to during processing, or something else?
  • Step 4 – Take steps to eliminate the contamination
  • Step 5 – Remain vigilant – keep testing and improving until the contamination is eliminated

What can you do?

Ask companies if they regularly test their products for lead; and whether they ensure that there is less than 1 ppb of lead in the food and juices they sell. If they don’t, let them know it is a high priority concern for you.

I’m about to have another baby, and I hope that by the time baby number two is here and ready to eat solids, food companies have taken the steps necessary to eliminate lead. That way, I can spend more time focusing on eating great food and less time worrying about if it’s  contaminated.

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