New report shows toxic heavy metals are lurking in food. Here’s what companies can do about it.

Last week, Healthy Babies Bright Futures (HBBF) released a report investigating heavy metals levels in rice, cereals,  juices, and other common foods. It found no evidence that homemade baby food has lower heavy metal levels than store-bought brands. In fact, heavy metal levels varied widely by food type, not by how it was made. And, nearly all food samples we tested contained detectable amounts of toxic heavy metals: 94% of store-bought baby food and 94% of homemade purees and family brand foods.

Happy Babies Bright Futures’s new report is a follow up to their 2019 report that revealed how extensively baby foods were contaminated with heavy metals in baby food and prompted a House Committee investigation. The Committee report prompted calls for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and food manufacturers to do more on the issue.   

Retailers need to take action to manage their suppliers to reduce heavy metals in children’s food  and to protect their business

We’re in an era where corporate behavior is being examined under a microscope. Beyond the costs of recalling products, the reputational risk can have long-term business impacts. 

Right now, there are very few federal standards limiting the levels of heavy metals in baby food, and there is no requirement for the companies to periodically disclose how much their products contain. This lack of oversight has led some companies to develop their own set of standards, which can fall short of protecting children’s health. As HBBF’s report shows, lead and arsenic levels are high in some fresh produce like carrots and sweet potatoes.   

FDA’s newly created Closer to Zero program shows promise for driving down levels of heavy metals in food marketed for babies and toddlers. Tackling the issue of heavy metals in children’s food would have major socioeconomic impact: even just a 6% reduction in children’s exposure from lead in food would result in $1 billion in socioeconomic benefits. Alongside agency action, we need to see companies voluntarily addressing heavy metal contamination head on. This includes working with their suppliers to adopt safer management practices. 

Here are three immediate ways companies can develop and implement preventive controls to reduce heavy metals in baby food.

  1. Set aspirational yet achievable target limits for heavy metals in the products you sell. The first step is  to understand your baseline levels of contamination. Next, set target limits and develop a process, involving others in the supply chain if necessary, to drive down contamination with continual improvement at the core of the program.
  2. Ask your suppliers to integrate heavy metals standards into their food safety management plans, and recommend your suppliers to test their crops and ingredients using reputable labs. In the absence of federal action levels (i.e. limits) EDF recommends using labs that can reliably measure contamination levels of at least six parts per billion.
  3. With some types of produce, the problem can start at the beginning of the supply chain, in the farm fields from contaminated soil. EDF recommends encouraging suppliers to work with growers to follow best practices for reducing heavy metal uptake and contamination in their crops. This includes periodic testing of their soil and water for contaminants as well as tailoring growth conditions and varietals for less uptake of heavy metals. 

Tags: safer food