Two Illinois lawmakers are pushing for a federal crackdown on toxic heavy metals in some of the nation’s best-selling brands of baby food that often are marketed as organic.
Democratic U.S. Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, of Schaumburg, drafted legislation along with Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth and two other federal lawmakers to confront the presence of toxic contaminants in baby food.
The group last week sought guidance from the Food and Drug Administration on tighter restrictions proposed after a roughly 16-month study of the issue by a congressional subcommittee chaired by Krishnamoorthi.
In February, that panel published a report based off of internal documents and test results from four baby food manufacturers that showed “significant levels” of toxic heavy metals in their products. Those toxins are known to cause damaging physical and neurological effects on infants.
“The results were shocking,” Krishnamoorthi told WBEZ. “There’s very high levels of toxic heavy metals such as arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury in these baby foods. These toxic heavy metals are known neurotoxins, meaning that they significantly impair the development of babies’ neurological as well as the development of their other organ systems.
“Unfortunately, the FDA has been completely AWOL with regard to setting standards for the levels of these toxic heavy metals or regulating the industry for the most part, and that’s just unacceptable,” he said.
Some of the contaminants are naturally occurring in some plants, but Krishnamoorthi said the contaminants are also finding their way into baby foods through pesticides, fertilizers, water and soil laced with industrial pollutants. The problem is pronounced in rice products, he said.
The congressional study noted how the FDA imposes limits on arsenic, lead, cadmium and mercury in bottled water, yet levels of some of those contaminants were up to 177 times greater in baby foods.
Last Friday, the FDA indicated that its own testing had not found unsafe levels of the heavy metals in baby food but identified the issue as a “high priority” within the agency.
“Research has shown that reducing exposure to toxic elements is important to minimizing any potential long-term effects on the developing brains of infants and children,” The FDA said in its statement. “As such, this issue is among FDA’s highest priorities, and we are actively working to make progress on identifying and implementing impactful solutions to make foods commonly consumed by infants and young children safer.”
Krishnamoorthi’s panel is seeking mandatory testing for toxic heavy metals by baby food manufacturers, product labeling that shows those results and a voluntary phase-out of any ingredients, like rice, that frequently carry high levels of those contaminants.
The subcommittee also wants the FDA to establish maximum allowed levels of heavy metals in baby foods.
“We thought that baby food makers would never sell anything that’s unsafe for babies, and … we always assumed that the FDA would never allow baby food makers to sell unsafe food,” Krishnamoorthi said. “Unfortunately, neither of those assumptions are true based on our investigation.”
WBEZ reached out to several manufacturers of baby food. Only Beech-Nut Nutrition Corporation responded, insisting that its line of products is safe but not denying the existence of the toxins targeted by Krishnamoorthi, Duckworth and others.
“We want to assure parents that Beech-Nut products are, and have always been, safe and nutritious,” the company said in a statement. “We look forward to continuing to work with the FDA, in partnership with the Baby Food Council, on science-based standards that food suppliers can implement across our industry.
“Beech-Nut is committed to continually refining its internal standards and testing processes as technology and knowledge develops. Beech-Nut has been and will continue to be a leader in providing high-quality baby food products.”
Dave McKinney covers Illinois politics and government for WBEZ. Follow him on Twitter @davemckinney.