We’re still waiting for Congress to stop letting our kids be poisoned
By Vineet Dubey
When it comes to the lifelong health and development of our children, how long is long enough to wait for Congress to act? What if threats to our children’s cognitive development and academic success come from the very foods we provide to nourish them during their first year of life? Do we sit back and wait for someone else to do the right thing?
That’s exactly where we are today with the Baby Food Safety Act. Introduced with headlines and high hopes in March 2021, it was to immediately impose limits on lead, cadmium, arsenic and mercury. These elements are known to take a toll on a child’s neurodevelopment.
The bill was briskly spirited away to the Democratic-controlled House Energy and Commerce’s Health subcommittee. It hasn’t been heard from since.
Parents like myself have been waiting more than a year for the bill’s sponsors, including primary author Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (IL-08), and the nine California representatives who co-sponsored it, including Rep. Doris Matsui (CA-06), to usher it along — or to at least tell us what’s holding it up. Meanwhile, baby food makers are still unregulated on how much of these dangerous heavy metals they let into the foods they sell.
Maybe the bill’s authors are waiting for the FDA to do its job? Following all the fanfare, the FDA grudgingly roused itself into preparing to regulate heavy metals in commercial baby. Its first-ever proposed limit for lead in commercial baby food was expected to be announced in April, under its Closer To Zero process. Instead, the FDA in April announced nothing more than a proposed limit for lead in liquid fruit juice. This isn’t even a half-step, but it’s typical.
And when the FDA ever gets around to addressing lead in ALL commercial baby food, any limits they set won’t go into effect until 2025. That means the roughly 10 million American babies born between now and then will continue ingesting heavy metals from baby foods sold by Gerber, Beech-Nut, Hain Celestial (Earth’s Best Organic) and Nurture (Happy Baby) — who’ll remain free to decide on their own what’s safe for your child.
Nearly 80 percent of brain development occurs within the first 1,000 days of life. Lead toxicity, for instance, can affect a child’s nervous system, lower her IQ, decrease academic achievement and increase attention related and problem behaviors. Children absorb the lead they ingest at a rate that’s four to five times greater than for adults.
Compare the FDA’s slow-roll to what the European Union has done. Last August new, lower limits were approved for lead and cadmium exposure in baby food and formula. They became effective that month, more than halving the lead limit for most processed cereal-based baby foods to 20 parts per billion (ppb), from the former maximum of 50 ppb.
The Baby Food Safety Act promised to put a quick cap on the most common heavy metals, while the FDA could take its sweet time to set limits. Inorganic arsenic would be limited to 10 ppb in all baby food; the threshold for lead and cadmium each would be 5 ppb in baby food and 10 ppb in infant cereal; and mercury would be restricted to 2 ppb in all baby food.
What a difference that could make. For babies less than one year old (excluding those breastfeeding), 83.3 percent of dietary lead exposure comes from foods marketed for infants. That breaks down as 47.3 percent from packaged foods and 36 percent from formula, according to a 2018 assessment by the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.
That’s a lot of potential exposure in just 12 months.
Outside of some additional costs for enforcement, keeping heavy metals out of baby food through the Baby Food Safety Act would tell manufacturers that someone is watching. Those companies will argue that setting limits is costly, due to the heavy metal testing that would be required, they also point out that no foods can ever be free of heavy metals, which are sucked into plants from soil, and then into animals that eat them.
That doesn’t let anyone off the hook. It only points the finger towards sourcing: If you’re buying rice from somewhere that still sprays insecticides containing arsenic, shouldn’t you look elsewhere? Arsenic-free water can be percolated through rice to reduce levels during production. Our children are worth that extra bit of effort.
And consider this: The biggest companies making baby food for the European market are the same Swiss-based companies who make it for Americans: Beech-Nut, which belongs to Hero Group, and Gerber, a part of Nestlé. They’ve somehow managed to quickly meet the EU’s new standards.
We’ve trusted baby food companies and they’ve abused that trust. Change must come from genuine Congressional action. For the past year Congress did nothing more than engage in a grandiose game of virtue signaling. Let’s ask them to do better than lip service. Isn’t it about time to stop putting our kids at risk?
Vineet Dubey is a Los Angeles environmental attorney and father of two toddlers. He has spent the past decade fighting to keep lead and other heavy metals out of baby food.