EDF Health

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A closer look at FDA’s “Closer to Zero” plan to reduce for heavy metals in children’s food

Tom Neltner, J.D. is the Chemicals Policy Director.

This month, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released its “Closer to Zero” action plan to reduce exposure to heavy metals in foods for babies and young children. The plan, released in response to a recent House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Reform report and the introduction of the Baby Food Safety Act in both the House and the Senate, is a step forward since it commits the agency to specific actions and general deadlines for the first time. However, there is room for improvement, specifically the agency should:

  1. Explicitly consider the cumulative effect of heavy metals on neurodevelopment when setting limits.
  2. Move up deadlines for draft action levels for arsenic and cadmium;
  3. Be consistent in messaging that there is no safe level of lead in children’s blood;
  4. Define what “as low as possible” and “children’s food” means as soon as possible;
  5. Be transparent by posting testing data quickly; and
  6. Add milestones for compliance verification with action levels and preventive controls.

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House Oversight Committee draws renewed attention to heavy metals in baby food and calls for FDA to act

Tom Neltner, J.D. is the Chemicals Policy Director.

Last week, the House Committee on Oversight and Reform’s Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy released an important report summarizing baby food testing data submitted by four companies (Beech-Nut, Gerber, Happy Family, and Earth’s Best), finding that “baby foods are tainted with dangerous levels of arsenic, lead, cadmium and mercury.” These heavy metals are widely recognized as harming children’s brain development.

The report found that three of the four companies (all but Gerber) used ingredients that had exceeded limits set in their internal standards. Additionally, the committee cited “grave concerns” that three other companies (Walmart, Plum, and Sprout) did not provide their internal standards and testing results in response to the legitimate request by the House Committee. Their lack of transparency undermines credibility and trust.

Due to the alarming nature of these findings about a food marketed as safe and healthy for infants and toddlers, the report garnered significant attention and has prompted calls for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and food manufacturers to do more on this issue.

Importantly, the report provides new insights into industry decision-making processes, highlights the need for greater oversight, and adds urgency to EDF’s ongoing efforts to reduce heavy metals in food.

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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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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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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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Heavy metals in food: Carrageenan as an example of the need to improve ingredient quality

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

Arsenic, cadmium and lead levels in carrageenan varied widely but were within international standards. This is not reassuring since current specifications for the heavy metals are inadequate. Food manufacturers can and should set tighter limits to better protect their customers. Consumers, especially those buying from internet-only retailers, need to ask the ingredient supplier how much of the heavy metals is acceptable.

In the fall of 2013, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) bought 10 samples of carrageenan from 5 companies sold through internet-only retailers to test for three heavy metals – lead, arsenic (total and inorganic), and cadmium. The agency published the results on its combination metals testing webpage in September 2016.

Each of these metals are carcinogens. In addition, lead and inorganic arsenic are widely acknowledged as harming children’s brain development even at low levels of exposure. EDF found that more than one million children consume lead in amounts that exceeds the maximum exposure level set by FDA in 1993, a level that subsequent research shows is of great risk to children’s health. Further, recent research has strengthened evidence of the relationship between low levels of lead exposure in adults and cardiovascular deaths. In 2011, the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) took the extraordinary step of withdrawing its previous tolerable intake level for lead because it could not determine a safe level of exposure for children.

In light of these risks, we must make every effort to reduce the levels of these heavy metals in food to the greatest extent possible – without undermining other food safety measures or compromising quality. A key step to success is examining the levels of heavy metals in all ingredients used to make a food since the risk is based on the cumulative exposure – even if the amounts in individual additives are small. With this in mind, we revisited FDA’s analysis of carrageenan.

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