The Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday proposed maximum limits for the amount of lead in baby foods like mashed fruits and vegetables and dry cereals after years of studies revealed that many processed products contained levels known to pose a risk of neurological and developmental harm.
The agency issued draft guidance, which would not be mandatory for food manufacturers to abide by. If finalized after a 60-day period for public comment, the guidelines would allow the agency to take enforcement action against companies that produced foods that exceeded the new limits.
“This is really important progress for babies,” said Scott Faber, vice president of public affairs for the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organization that had urged the agency to take action to remove metals from foods. “We were grateful that F.D.A. and the Biden administration has made reducing toxic metals in baby food a priority.”
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 Healthy Babies Bright Futures, a nonprofit, called the guidelines disappointing. “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 F.D.A. has set will influence almost none of that food.”
She said the limits would address some of the highest levels they had found but more broadly appeared to “codify the status quo.”
The agency guidelines would set levels that do not exceed 10 parts per billion of lead in yogurts, fruits or vegetables and 20 parts per billion in root vegetables and in dry infant cereals.
The F.D.A. said in a news release that the proposed levels “would result in significant reductions in exposures to lead from food while ensuring availability of nutritious foods.” The agency said the proposal was part of its Closer to Zero initiative, which is aimed at reducing the exposure of young children to toxins such as lead, arsenic, cadmium and mercury.
The proposed levels “will result in long-term, meaningful and sustainable reductions in the exposure to this contaminant from foods,” said Dr. Robert M. Califf, the commissioner of the F.D.A. It would allow the agency to deem foods in excess of the limits “adulterated,” which would let the F.D.A. seek a recall, seize products or recommend a criminal prosecution.
The agency estimated that the proposed levels announced today could reduce some children’s dietary exposure to lead by about 25 percent. According to the agency, low levels of lead exposure in children can lead to “learning disabilities, behavior difficulties and lowered I.Q.” as well as immunological and cardiovascular effects.
The F.D.A. set limits earlier for inorganic arsenic in rice cereal for infants and proposed maximum levels for lead in juice in April.
Representative Raja Krishnamoorthi, Democrat of Illinois, has been a leading voice calling for reductions of heavy metals in baby foods. He and other lawmakers released a report in 2021 showing that baby foods like carrots and sweet potatoes were contaminated with heavy metals.
Months later, Consumer Reports released tests showing that arsenic remained present in rice cereal meant for babies even after the limit was issued. The group advised parents to favor dry oatmeal as a safer alternative.
Mr. Faber, of the Environmental Working Group, said the new guideline would prompt food companies to rapidly encourage suppliers to alter their farming practices to reduce the lead levels in food.
“I think that past history has shown that farmers and food companies are very quickly able to change how they grow and process these ingredients to meet tougher standards,” he said.
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