The U.S. Food and Drug Administration wants companies that make food for babies and children under 2 to reduce the amount of lead their products contain.

It’s not like lead is being added to baby food. Rather, there’s a lot of lead naturally in the environment, so plants can absorb it. That means small amounts can be found in food products that contain plants, including fruits, vegetables and grains.

In announcing draft guidance for the baby food industry, FDA officials said action is needed to protect vulnerable children from potential health effects. The agency’s Closer to Zero campaign “sets forth the FDA’s science-based approach to continually reducing exposure to lead, arsenic, cadmium and mercury to the lowest levels possible in foods eaten by babies and young children,” the agency said in a news release Tuesday.

Long-term problems

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, no level of lead is safe for kids. “Even low levels of lead in blood have been shown to negatively affect a child’s intelligence, ability to pay attention and academic achievement.”

The public health agency said lead exposure may:

  • Damage the brain and nervous system.
  • Slow growth and development.
  • Create learning and behavior problems.
  • Cause hearing and speech issues.

Susan Mayne, director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, emphasized the importance of ensuring children get “a varied and nutrient-dense diet across and within the main food groups of vegetables, fruits, grains, dairy and protein foods.” She said the guidelines on lead are “not intended to direct consumers in making food choices.” Rather, they hope that reducing the contaminants taken up from the environment will reduce the potential for harm as children get adequate nutrition.

“For babies and young children who eat the foods covered in today’s draft guidance, the FDA estimates that these action levels could result in as much as a 24%-27% reduction in exposure to lead from these foods,” said Dr. Robert M. Califf, the FDA commissioner.

“Just as fruits, vegetables and grain crops readily absorb vital nutrients from the environment, these foods also take up contaminants like lead that can be harmful to health,” the announcement said.

Limiting lead

The draft guidance covers processed foods, including food in jars, pouches, tubs and boxes. It calls for reducing lead to 10 parts per billion for fruits, vegetables, mixtures (including meat-based and grain mixtures), yogurts, puddings and custards and single-ingredient meals.

Single-ingredient root vegetable baby food would be limited to 20 parts per billion, as would dry cereals.

View Comments

“We know that the less amount of these metals in babies’ bodies the better,” Dr. Aaron Bernstein, a pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital and a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics, told NPR.

What do babies need before age 3 to thrive — and how can state family policy help?
95% of tested baby foods contained toxic metals. Here’s what you need to know

“Parents need to recognize that foods have metals in them naturally in some cases,” he said, noting children should be given a variety of foods. Because foods naturally have different amounts of lead and good nutrition hinges on eating a variety of foods, “good nutritional guidance will also reduce exposure to those metals,” he said.

The New York Times noted that “the new limits, aimed at foods for children under 2, do not address grain-based snacks that have also been found to contain high levels of heavy metals. And they do not limit other metals, like cadmium, that the agency and many consumer groups have detected in infant foods in previous years.”

Jane Houlihan, research director for the nonprofit Healthy Babies Bright Futures, told the Times she was disappointed in the guidelines. “It doesn’t go far enough to protect babies from neurodevelopmental damage from lead exposures,” she said. “Lead is in almost every baby food we’ve tested and the action levels that FDA has set will influence almost none of that food.”

Join the Conversation
Looking for comments?
Find comments in their new home! Click the buttons at the top or within the article to view them — or use the button below for quick access.