Limits Proposed on Lead in Baby Food


Jars of baby food | Image by ayvoronskaya_Yana/Shutterstock

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) proposed new limits on lead in processed baby food on Tuesday.

Exposure to lead, which is particularly dangerous for young children, can damage the brain and the nervous system, leading to learning disabilities.

The FDA issued a draft proposal stating its proposed limits for packaged foods intended for children younger than two years old.

“Because lead can accumulate in the body, even low-level chronic exposure can be hazardous over time,” the FDA’s draft proposal states.

FDA Commissioner Dr. Robert Califf said the limits would reduce exposure to the contaminant from these foods by as much as 27%.

Below are the agency’s proposed lead concentration limits for baby food:

  • 10 parts per billion for fruits, vegetables, yogurts, custards and puddings, mixtures, and single-ingredient meats. This would reduce exposure by 26%.
  • 20 parts per billion for single-ingredient root vegetable products, like mashed potatoes. This would reduce exposure by 27%.
  • 20 parts per billion for dry cereals. This would reduce exposure by 24%.

Although the FDA’s proposed limits are not legally binding, the agency said it will use them to decide whether to take enforcement action against a company in the industry for selling contaminated food.

“Although it is not possible to remove these elements entirely from the food supply, we expect that the recommended action levels will cause manufacturers to implement agricultural and processing measures to lower lead levels,” the press release reads.

Though progress has been made, with lead exposure through food among children ages 1 to 3 declining 97% since the 1980s, according to the FDA, the agency launched an effort in 2021 to further reduce the levels of lead, arsenic, cadmium, and mercury in children’s food.

The agency said it is continuing to work on developing recommendations around the levels of these metals.

It is impossible to eliminate lead, arsenic, cadmium, and mercury, from food supplies entirely because when crops absorb nutrients from the soil, water, and air as they grow, they also take up these contaminants. The metals can occur naturally in the environment, but pollution can also introduce them.

Contaminated water or soil, industrial activity, and old lead-containing equipment could taint food supplies with these metals, according to the FDA.

Baby-food makers have said their foods do not contain unsafe amounts of the metals, but they are still working on lowering the levels by changing suppliers and manufacturing methods.

Beech-Nut, Gerber, and Plum Organics told The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) they are reviewing the proposed limits and are committed to working with the FDA for the safety of their products. Walmart declined to comment.

Consumer Reports, a non-profit organization that researched the issue in 2018, said the FDA lead limits are a good start but need to go further.

The group said it was particularly concerned that the FDA did not propose limits on lead in grain-based snacks or “baby junk food,” such as puffs and wafers, which it said often contain the highest levels of the toxin.

“It appears that the proposed standards were set based more on current industry feasibility to achieve the limits and not solely on levels that would best protect public health,” Brian Ronholm, the group’s director of food policy, told the WSJ.

FDA Commissioner Califf claims the proposed limits “will result in long-term, meaningful and sustainable reductions in the exposure to this contaminant from foods.”

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