Does Your Baby's Food Contain Lead? Here's What You Need to Know About the FDA's New Guidelines

After numerous studies have exposed dangerously high levels of heavy metals in baby food, the FDA is taking action to reduce young children’s dietary exposure to lead.

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This week, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) put forth new proposals as part of their Closer to Zero initiative that set out to lower lead levels in baby food drastically over the next few months. This comes after numerous studies conducted by independent and government agencies found dangerously high levels of lead in infant and toddler food in the last few years.

Which foods will be affected? When will the guidelines even take effect? Here's everything you need to know about the new announcement.

What to Know About the FDA's Proposed Lead Limits for Baby Food

The Closer to Zero initiative is an action plan of proposed FDA guidelines aimed at reducing young children's exposure to heavy metal toxins including lead, arsenic, cadmium, and mercury. The guidance announced this week comes in response to studies conducted by senators as well as independent agencies including Consumer Reports, who just recently published a headline-making studies on levels of heavy metal in most commercial dark chocolate as well as dried spices.

The proposed guidelines will lower the limit of lead in packaged foods aimed at children under 2, including yogurts, fruits, vegetable and root vegetable purées and mashes, and dry cereals. The FDA estimates these guidelines could lower young children's dietary exposure to lead by up to 24 to 27 percent.

Dr. Robert M. Califf, the commissioner of the FDA, said the proposal, "will result in long-term, meaningful and sustainable reductions in the exposure to this contaminant from foods."

It's important to note that this proposal does not address grain-based snacks (which have also been found to contain high levels of heavy metal), nor do they do address limits on other heavy metals, such as cadmium and arsenic.

A History of Heavy Metals in Baby Food

For years, lawmakers, non-profit groups, and many consumer groups have found heavy metals like cadmium and arsenic in infant and toddler foods. Lead exposure, according to the FDA, even in low levels can have immunological and cardiovascular effects in children, as well as neurological effects including, "learning disabilities, behavior difficulties and lowered I.Q.".

This is not the first guideline to be announced in an effort to combat child exposure to heavy metals. Back in 2020, the FDA set new limits for inorganic arsenic in infant rice cereal resulting in some voluntary recalls. However, just last year a Consumer Report showed that despite lowered levels, many infant rice cereals still contained levels of arsenic well above what many experts recommend.

In 2022, the FDA also proposed maximum levels for lead in juice—especially apple juice and blends containing apple juice—as a part of the Closer to Zero action plan.

When Will These Limits Take Effect?

The proposals are currently in the 'draft guidance' stage, which means they have 60 days to garner comments from the public, as well as from companies and lawmakers. After that, the FDA will publish its final format, but companies whose products will be affected will likely start taking action to limit lead levels immediately in order to avoid future penalty.

Once the guidelines are published, companies don't necessarily have to take action, however if their products are found to exceed these limits, the FDA can penalize them. If the FDA deems foods to be in excess of the limits, or "adulterated," they are eligible for a recall, or the agency can go so far as to seize products, or even recommend a criminal prosecution.

What Can Parents and Caregivers Do To Limit Risk Now?

In short, nothing. The FDA issued a brief summating the new guidelines in which the organization made it clear that this new guidance is, "not intended to direct consumers in making food choices," nor should caregivers throw out processed or packaged baby foods, even those affected by the new guidelines.

These are meant to be longterm solutions. Immediate action of limiting or eliminating certain food groups can cause more harm than good, the statement warns, resulting in, "nutrient deficiencies and poor health outcomes."

However, if you do want to make a few swaps, Consumer Reports has published several guidances and suggestions on which products contain relatively lower levels of heavy metals, and other steps caregivers can take to limit infants' dietary exposure to heavy metals.

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