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Testing turns up heavy metals in baby food; what Consumer Reports says parents need to know

Of the 50 products tested, food products containing rice and sweet potatoes turned up the highest levels of heavy metals. (Thinkstock)

WASHINGTON — Testing of dozens of the most popular packaged foods for babies and toddlers turned up noticeable and even “worrisome” levels of lead and other heavy metals, according to the watchdog Consumer Reports.

The group said its analysis showed every product it examined had measurable levels of at least one of the heavy metals for which it tested: cadmium, inorganic arsenic, mercury and lead.

About two-thirds of the products tested had “worrisome” levels of at least one heavy metal, and 15 of the products would pose health risks if a child ate just one serving or less per day, the watchdog group said.

While the results are concerning, the presence of heavy metals in baby food does not necessarily pose an imminent risk to children’s health, said James Dickerson, chief scientific officer for Consumer Reports, in an interview with WTOP.

“It’s a chronic issue, not an acute issue,” he said. “So, eating one or two or 10 of these foods is not going to make you sick. What we’re trying to let people know is that over the lifetime of the growth and development of your child, if you can reduce their exposure to these types of foods — and hence these types of heavy elements — it will go a long way to reducing the potential risks that are involved.”

Over the course of a child’s development, exposure to heavy metals increases the likelihood of developing cancer, particularly lung cancer, bladder cancer and kidney cancer, and increases the risks of issues with neurological development, Dickerson said.

The Consumer Reports analysis does not name specific products or brands, only types of foods and ingredients. Of the 50 products tested, food products containing rice and sweet potatoes turned up the highest levels of heavy metals. Snack foods, which are often rice-based, were cited as particularly problematic in terms of heavy metal levels.

The analysis also found that products marketed as organic were not more likely to have lower levels of heavy metals.

About 16 of the products had what the group described as “less concerning” levels of heavy metals. That shows that all baby food manufacturers can work harder to reduce heavy metals in their products, Dickerson said.

“Industry can do better, can be more vigilant to source food, raw food, from farms that contain lower levels of heavy elements,” he said. “That’s possible. How do we know that? Because we’ve done our studies and different manufacturers were able to have low levels of heavy elements.”

Consumer Reports, which shared its findings with food manufacturers and with federal health officials, is asking the Food and Drug Administration to strengthen regulations that safeguard baby food.

The FDA should set a goal of having no measurable levels of heavy metals in baby food products and should set benchmarks for food manufacturers to incrementally reach that goal, the watchdog group wrote in a letter to FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb.

In addition, Consumer Reports is calling on the FDA to release guidelines setting arsenic levels in rice and lead levels in fruit juices. The agency first proposed those guidelines in 2016 but they have not been finalized.

In a statement to WTOP, an FDA spokesman said the agency “remains committed to the safety of the foods that people in the U.S. consume and to reducing the risks posed by exposure to heavy metals, especially in vulnerable populations such as infants and children.”

The spokesman said FDA recently launched a “toxic elements working group” to identify ways to reduce exposure to heavy metals.

As for what parents should do now, Dickerson, with Consumer Reports, said parents need to take a balanced approach toward their children’s diets. If you feed your child lots of rice-based cereals, for example, think about mixing in other types of grains, such as oats, wheat and barley.

WTOP’s Kristi King contributed to this report.


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