By David Shepardson and Susan Heavey
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. congressional investigators found “dangerous levels of toxic heavy metals” in certain baby foods that could cause neurological damage, a House Oversight subcommittee said in a report released on Thursday in calling for new standards and testing requirements.
The panel examined products made by Nurture Inc, Hain Celestial Group Inc, Beech-Nut Nutrition and Gerber, a unit of Nestle, it said, adding that it was “greatly concerned” that Walmart Inc, Campbell Soup Co and Sprout Organic Foods refused to cooperate with the investigation. The U.S. baby food market was worth an estimated $8 billion in 2020, according to Euromonitor.
The report said internal company standards “permit dangerously high levels of toxic heavy metals, and documents revealed that the manufacturers have often sold foods that exceeded those levels.”
The report urged U.S. regulators to set maximum levels of toxic heavy metals permitted in baby foods and require manufacturers to test finished products for heavy metals, not just ingredients, while baby food companies said they were working to reducing levels of metals that occur naturally in food products.
Representative Raja Krishnamoorthi, a Democrat who chairs the panel that released the report, said it found “these manufacturers knowingly sell baby food containing high levels of toxic heavy metals ... It’s time that we develop much better standards for the sake of future generations.”
A Food and Drug Administration (FDA) spokesman said the agency was reviewing the report.
The agency noted toxic elements are present in the environment and enter the food supply through soil, water or air. “Because they cannot be completely removed, our goal is to reduce exposure to toxic elements in foods to the greatest extent feasible,” the FDA said.
Campbell said in a statement on its website that its products are safe and cited the lack of a current FDA standard for heavy metals in baby food. The market’s sixth biggest brand said it thought it had been “full partners” in the study with congressional researchers.
Walmart said it submitted information to the committee in February 2020 and never received any subsequent inquiries. The retail giant requires private label product suppliers to hew to its own internal specifications, “which for baby and toddler food means the levels must meet or fall below the limits established by the FDA.”
Happy Family Organics said it was “disappointed at the many inaccuracies, select data usage and tone bias in this report. We can say with the utmost confidence that all Happy Family Organics products are safe for babies and toddlers to enjoy.” It added it welcomes “additional guidelines from the FDA.”
Hain Celestial - the baby food market’s No.4. player which makes Earth’s Best - said the “report examined outdated data and does not reflect our current practices” and said it “inaccurately characterized a meeting with the FDA.”
Hain added since then it “took several steps to reduce the levels of heavy metals in our finished products – including no longer using brown rice in our products that are primarily rice based, changing other ingredients and conducting additional testing of finished product before shipping.”
A representative from Gerber - which sells about a fifth of all baby food in the United States - said the elements in question occur naturally in the soil and water in which crops are grown and added it takes multiple steps “to minimize their presence.”
Beech-Nut Nutrition said it was reviewing the report and is working with other companies “on science-based standards that food suppliers can implement across our industry.”
The report was critical also of the administration of former President Donald Trump, saying it “ignored a secret industry presentation to federal regulators revealing increased risks of toxic heavy metals in baby foods.”
The report said “in 100% of the Hain baby foods tested, inorganic arsenic levels were higher in the finished baby food than the company estimated they would be based on individual ingredient testing.”
It said that in August 2019 the FDA received a secret slide presentation from Hain that said “corporate policies to test only ingredients, not final products, underrepresent the levels of toxic heavy metals in baby foods.”
The report said the FDA took no new action in response. “To this day, baby foods containing toxic heavy metals bear no label or warning to parents. Manufacturers are free to test only ingredients, or, for the vast majority of baby foods, to conduct no testing at all,” the report said.
The FDA has declared that inorganic arsenic, lead, cadmium, and mercury are dangerous, particularly to infants and children, the report noted.
The FDA in August finalized guidance to industry, setting an action level of 100 parts per billion inorganic arsenic in infant rice cereal.
“We acknowledge that there is more work to be done, but the FDA reiterates its strong commitment to continue to reduce consumer exposure to toxic elements and other contaminants from food,” the FDA said Thursday.
(Reporting by Susan Heavey and David Shepardson; Additional reporting by Chris Sanders, Richa Naidu and Silke Koltrowitz; Editing by Howard Goller, Steve Orlofsky and Marguerita Choy)