Ensuring your lab is capable of testing for heavy metals in food

It is essential that anyone evaluating foods for heavy metal contamination (e.g. arsenic, cadmium, and lead) use a laboratory that is capable of measuring precisely at the level of concern – the low ppb range – which can pose significant health threats. A new effort spearheaded by the Baby Food Council will give your company the opportunity to demonstrate your measurement capability.

“Even though the levels of a metal in any particular food is low, our overall exposure adds up because many of the foods we eat contain them in small amounts.” –  Dr. Conrad Choiniere, leader of FDA’s Toxic Elements Workgroup on April 20, 2018

Heavy metals such as arsenic, cadmium, and lead are present in most foods, whether conventional or organic, usually as the result of environmental contamination. Because heavy metals pose significant threats even at low levels, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has made reducing cumulative exposure a priority. The Baby Food Council – consisting of Beech-Nut Nutrition Company, Happy Family Organics, Earth’s Best, and Gerber Products Company and supported by Healthy Babies Bright Futures (HBBF), Cornell University and EDF – shares this goal and seeks to reduce heavy metals in the companies’ products to as low as reasonably achievable using best-in-class management practices.

Through the Council, EDF is coordinating a proficiency testing program to enable retailers, food manufacturers, ingredient suppliers, and others to identify laboratories that are capable of measuring arsenic, cadmium, and lead at levels in the low parts per billion (ppb). It has arranged for FAPAS, a leading proficiency testing provider for the food and water testing industries, to manage the testing program.

Why is proficiency testing important?

A lab result that says heavy metals in a food ingredient are non-detectable is ideal. However, if the lab did not use a sensitive enough analytical method, or if their procedures lack adequate precision, the non-detectable result may unintentionally mask a potential problem. It can create difficult situations when buyers, FDA, or the public runs tests using another lab and finds the substances in a company’s product.

For example, EDF encountered this situation in 2018 when we reached out to 79 companies whose children’s foods FDA had tested for these heavy metals using an extremely sensitive method that the agency developed. We communicated with 40 of the companies and learned that some did not use the most sensitive method and could not measure the heavy metals below 100 ppb. We published a blog in June 2018 providing the results of our investigation. Later, Consumer Reports and HBBF also published results of their own baby food testing investigations, reinforcing that heavy metal contamination continues to exist in some products.

To avoid surprises and disruption to their markets, companies should ensure testing is conducted with inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (ICP-MS) equipment that has a sensitivity similar to that in FDA’s Elemental Analytical Method 4.7 (EAM 4.7). Third-party proficiency testing such as the program offered by FAPAS and the Baby Food Council, is an excellent means to evaluate the lab’s capability to help a company understand in which foods heavy metals may be present at levels of concern.

How does this proficiency testing program work?

FAPAS will prepare samples of a vegetable puree with known concentrations of arsenic, cadmium, and lead and send samples to invited labs. The concentrations will range from around one-half to ten times the limit of quantification (LOQ) established by FDA for its EAM 4.7. The labs will have four to six weeks to provide FAPAS with the results of the analysis for each of the three metals. Speciation of arsenic into its organic and inorganic forms is not required.

FAPAS will evaluate the information, score the results, and provide the Council with a report summarizing the results. While the report will not identify the participating labs, FAPAS will send each lab its own report, and those that perform well are encouraged to share their results with the Council and be considered for listing on the Council’s website.

How can a lab get invited?

Companies, including labs, interested in participating should contact EDF’s Boma Brown-West at bbrown@edf.org by February 15.

Additional resources

EDF’s recommendations for testing for contaminants in food and food packaging

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