Members of Congress and child advocates are pushing to ensure the safety of packaged baby food amid reports of tainted products being consumed by infants and toddlers.

The Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy, part of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, recently released a second staff report detailing “dangerous” levels of toxic heavy metals in some baby food products. The latest document follows an initial subcommittee report in February which found multiple leading baby food brands are allegedly tainted with levels of inorganic arsenic, lead, cadmium, and mercury. 

In an interview with ESSENCE, Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-IL), who chairs the subcommittee, called the findings a “real eye opener,” particularly for parents and caregivers.

“[Our] investigation has pulled back the curtain on the baby foods industry, and each revelation has been more damning than the last,” said Krishnamoorthi.

Citing the reports, the Congressman said that some companies “not only under-report the high levels of toxic content in their baby food, but also knowingly keep toxic products on the market.” 

Back in 2019, a Healthy Babies Bright Futures’  study found heavy metals in 95 percent of baby foods, drawing widespread concerns and subsequent attention from Congress. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) has also weighed in on toxic metals in food. Exposure can adversely impact early brain development, and potentially cause cognitive, learning, and behavioral problems. 

“Exposure to toxic elements has a disproportionate effect on infants and toddlers because their brains are rapidly developing, especially during their first 1,000 days,” said Lee Ann Savio Beers, M.D., president of American Academy of Pediatrics in a statement provided to ESSENCE.  “There is no known safe level of exposure to these metals for children and we must work as hard and as fast as we can to reduce their risk.”

The two Congressional subcommittee reports found that toxic metals were present in various types of baby foods ranging from rice cereals to snack puffs.

Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA), a member of the subcommittee, called the findings “shocking.”

“As we know, Black mothers are already at greater risk of negative health effects during pregnancy,” he told ESSENCE in a statement. 

“We’re calling on the FDA to move more expeditiously to establish specific regulations and require companies that manufacture baby food to test the finished products, not just the individual ingredients,” the Congressman added. “As for the companies, they must do a better job of testing their final products to address the problem of toxic metals in baby foods.”

Gerber, Beech-Nut, Happy Baby Organics, Earth’s Best Organics, Sprout Organic Foods, Plum Organics (which Campbell’s recently sold)  and Walmart’s Parent’s Choice are among the baby food brands cited in one and/or both of the Congressional subcommittee’s reports. 

While some companies have pushed back on certain aspects of the reports, all have sought to reassure consumers of their commitment to product safety. 

Gerber issued a statement noting “the health and nutrition of babies is our priority. We want to reassure parents that our foods are safe for baby. Throughout our 90-year history, we have set safety and quality standards that are industry-leading and among the strictest in not just the U.S., but the world.”

Gerber noted that “heavy metals are naturally found in water and soil and can become a part of certain fruits, vegetables and grains as they grow. This is true whether a parent buys them in the grocery store or at their local farmer’s market.”  Gerber said it takes a series of steps to reduce heavy metals and “deliver high-quality and safe baby food.”  

“The safety of infants and children is Beech-Nut’s top priority,” said Jason Jacobs, Vice President, Food Safety and Quality in a statement. Beech-Nut, in the baby food market since the 1930s, issued a voluntary recall this summer for its branded Single Grain Rice Cereal, and will no longer sell it. 

In a statement, Earth’s Best parent company said it “has consistently supported efforts to reduce naturally occurring heavy metals from our food supply and stands ready to assist the Subcomittee’s efforts toward that goal.”  

ESSENCE spoke with Randy Hargrove, a Walmart corporate spokesman about its Parent’s Choice baby products. He said that like many other grocers/retailers, Walmart does not require its private brand suppliers (or their suppliers of raw materials) to submit all test reports or test results to the company. Rather, they require suppliers to demonstrate the effectiveness of their food safety management systems through continued certification by the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI). They also require suppliers to meet the finished good specifications— including for heavy metals in baby foods— the retailer establishes.

“We are committed to providing high quality private brand baby food products that are safe and nutritious,” Walmart said in a statement, noting that it “looks forward to further guidance.”

Towards solutions, several food producers noted their involvement with the Baby Food Council. In partnership with Cornell University, the Environmental Defense Fund, and other stakeholders, the council aims to reduce heavy metals by using best-in-class management practices.

The FDA describes protecting babies and young children as one of its “highest priorities.” The agency issued a letter to manufacturers reminding them to consider chemical hazards as required by law. On its website, the FDA said its testing shows that children “are not at an immediate health risk from exposure to toxic elements at the levels found in foods.” 

The FDA has announced an action plan called Closer to Zero centered around child food safety. It sets forth a multi-phase, science-based approach to achieving the goal of “getting levels of toxic elements in foods closer to zero over time.”

Charlotte Brody, National Director of Healthy Babies Bright Futures has questioned whether the pace is fast enough. “Every year, four million babies start to eat solid foods,” she said in a statement. “Because these companies won’t take the necessary steps voluntarily, we need — and babies need — a government that keeps them safe from these neurotoxic chemicals in their food.”

There’s already been legislation introduced in Congress around this issue. 

Rep. Krishnamoorthi, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MO), Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-CA) and Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) have introduced the Baby Food Safety Act of 2021 in the House and Senate.

The measure, if passed, would dramatically reduce toxic heavy metals in baby food, educate parents about the risks, invest in cutting-edge farming technology, and reduce any economic barriers to making baby food safe for consumption.

In a letter to members of Congress about the bill, the American Academy of Pediatrics urged having “multiple voices at the table”–from parents to regulatory agencies, to those who administer federal nutrition programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

The AAP letter further expressed that “policy changes designed to promote safety in packaged baby food do not inadvertently drive parents to exclusively use homemade baby foods, which may not have lower levels of toxic heavy metals and may not be nutritionally adequate.”

The Baby Food Safety Act of 2021, endorsed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and dozens of lawmakers, awaits further legislative action. 

“For too long, this multi-billion dollar industry has been allowed to self-regulate baby food safety, and the results have been appalling and extremely harmful to our kids,” said Krishnamoorthi.  “We will not stand for that any longer. We must protect our precious little ones.”