EDF Health

Selected tag(s): Heavy metals in food

When it comes to testing heavy metals in food, the result is only as good as the lab.

Tom Neltner, J.D., Chemicals Policy Director and Boma Brown-West, Senior Manager.

“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). The Council has arranged for FAPAS, a leading proficiency testing provider for the food and water testing industries, to manage the testing program.

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Latest federal data on lead in food suggests progress made in 2016 was fleeting

Tom Neltner, J.D.Chemicals Policy Director and Maricel Maffini, Ph.D., Consultant

The Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Total Diet Study (TDS) is an important source of data for both the agency and the public to estimate exposure, track trends, and set priorities for chemical contaminants in food. EDF analyzed TDS data for samples the agency collected from 2003-2013 in our 2017 report to reveal that lead in food was a hidden health threat. In follow-up blogs using TDS data from 2014-2016, we reported that overall trends for detectable rates of lead appeared to be on the decline, especially in 2016. In our analysis, we summarized that the trends were both good news and bad news for children because there were stubbornly high rates of detectable lead in baby food teething biscuits, arrowroot cookies, carrots, and sweet potatoes.

In this blog, we analyze the latest lead in food TDS data, released by FDA in August, and we take a new look at the trends. Overall, the 2017 data reversed the progress in 2016, largely driven by the percent of samples[1] with detectable lead in prepared meals nearly doubling from 19% to 39%. The good news is that fruit juices continued their dramatic and steady drop in samples with detectable lead, from 67% in 2016 to 11% in 2017. When we compared results for baby foods to similar samples of regular fruits and vegetables, the most notable finding was that baby carrots and peeled and boiled carrots had significantly lower detection rates than baby food carrot puree. Additionally, we were surprised to find that 83 of 84 samples of canned fruit had detectable levels of lead.

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Too much cadmium and lead in kids’ food according to estimates by FDA

Tom Neltner, J.D.Chemicals Policy Director and Maricel Maffini, Ph.D., Consultant

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released a study in April estimating young children’s exposure to lead and cadmium from their diets and identifying food groups that are a significant source of these heavy metals. The study used data from the agency’s Total Diet Study (TDS) program for 2014 to 2016 and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) What We Eat in America (WWEIA) Survey for 2009 to 2014.[1]

The study is a reminder of how pervasive heavy metals are in children’s diets and that, while the levels are relatively low, the cumulative exposure is significant. Based on FDA’s analysis (Table 1 below), we estimate that about 2.2 million children exceeded the agency’s maximum daily intake (MDI) for lead at a given time. The results for cadmium are new and worrisome, with estimated daily intake (EDI) levels that are 3 to 4 times greater than lead. And while FDA has not yet set an MDI limit for cadmium, the average young child exceeds most of the relevant daily exposure limits set by other agencies. Clearly, cadmium warrants greater attention, but note that the evidence of neurotoxicity is still emerging.

Table 1: Young children’s estimated dietary intake (EDI) of lead and cadmium based on FDA’s TDS results for years 2014 to 2016 (based on hybrid method)

Age GroupLead Mean EDI Lead 90th Percentile EDICadmium Mean EDICadmium 90th Percentile EDI
LimitsFDA’s MDI is 3.0No MDL set by FDA. Intake exceeded most limits set by other agencies
1-6 years1.8 µg/day2.9 µg/day6.8 µg/day11.0 µg/day
1-3 years1.7 µg/day2.6 µg/day5.8 µg/day9.7 µg/day
4-6 years2.0 µg/day3.1 µg/day7.8 µg/day12.1 µg/day

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FDA seeks expert panel review of neurodevelopmental risk of inorganic arsenic in food

Tom Neltner, J.D.is Chemicals Policy Director and Maricel Maffini, Ph.D., Consultant

Updated March 27, 2019 to include a link to EDF’s comments and to Project TENDR’s comments.

The United States has asked the Codex Alimentarius (Codex), the international standard setting body for food, to prioritize inorganic arsenic for evaluation of non-cancer effects such as neurodevelopmental, immunological, and cardiovascular effects. The evaluation would be conducted by an expert panel convened by the Joint Food and Agriculture Organization / World Health Organization Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA), on which Codex relies for scientific advice.[1]

EDF will submit comments in support of the proposal and encourages others to do the same.[2] However, FDA should not wait for the review to be finished before incorporating this evidence into its long-awaited standards for inorganic arsenic in rice.

Evidence of harm from inorganic arsenic on children’s neurodevelopment has grown more compelling

Inorganic arsenic is a known water and food contaminant. FDA has measured it in many foods included in its Total Diet Study, but it’s mostly known for its presence in baby and infant foods such as rice and fruit juices. The presence of inorganic arsenic in staples of children’s diets is concerning due to its risk of potential lasting health effects. The risks posed by inorganic arsenic on fetal and child brain development has become increasingly clear since the early 2000s as epidemiological studies began to scrutinize more subtle effects such as learning disorders and epigenetic effects. Earlier studies mostly focused on gross measures such as low body weight or increased stillbirths.

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FDA reduces maximum daily limit for lead in children’s food by half

Tom Neltner, J.D.is Chemicals Policy Director and Maricel Maffini, Ph.D., Consultant

On September 27, 2018, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reduced the maximum allowed daily intake of lead for children from 6 to 3 micrograms per day (µg/day). It has also set a limit for adults of 12.5 µg/day, to protect against possible fetal exposure in women who are unaware they are pregnant and to reduce infant exposure during nursing. The agency now refers to these limits as the “Interim Reference Level” to match the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) terminology for elevated blood lead levels that warrant action. FDA reports that the new level for children is the amount of lead in food expected to result in a blood lead level of 5 µg/deciliter, with a 10-fold safety factor to account for differences across the population.

This change is a major step in FDA’s new push to limit heavy metals in food to protect children’s neurological development. In April 2018, FDA explained that its Toxic Elements Working Group is “looking at all the [heavy] metals across all foods rather than one contaminant, one food at a time,” and that “even though the level 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.”

As the agency indicated earlier this year, the next step for the Working Group is to “begin reevaluating the specific lead levels that FDA has set for a variety of foods.”

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For children’s food, heavy metals require more attention and better standards

Tom Neltner is Chemicals Policy Director and Michelle Harvey and Maricel Maffini are consultants

In June 2017, EDF released Lead in Food: A Hidden Health Threat. The report examined a decade’s worth of data from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and found lead detected in 20% of baby food samples compared to 14% for other foods. Eight types of baby foods, including fruit juices, root vegetables, and teething biscuits, had detectable lead in more than 40% of the samples. We closed the report with the following recommendation:

In the meantime, parents should consult with their pediatrician to learn about how to reduce lead exposure. They should also check with their favorite brands and ask whether the company regularly tests their products for lead, and ensures that, especially for baby food, there is less than 1 ppb of lead in the food and juices they sell.

As described below, we have reason to believe it will take more focused effort on the part of both FDA and food companies to ensure consistently low levels of heavy metals – lead, arsenic, and cadmium in particular – in infant’s and toddler’s diets.

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