A Concerning Combination: Heavy Metals and Baby Food

Natalie Jakubowski

Associate Editor

Loyola University Chicago School of Law, JD 2024

On January 24, 2023, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced their plans to work towards drafting regulation to limit lead levels in baby food. The FDA has found that lead in products such as food, supplements, and cosmetics can have detrimental and long term effects on humans, and especially on certain groups such as young children. Young children are specifically vulnerable to harmful effects of lead consumption because they are still physically smaller and going through development. While the FDA has regulated lead in food and other products, the FDA’s recent focus on decreasing lead levels in baby food highlights the concerning trend of federal regulations which are under-inclusive.

How a heavy metal can make its way into food

Lead is a heavy metal that can end up in crops and plants through processes like groundwater contamination, which is when heavy metals dissolve into water that flows through the ground. A heavy metal like lead is able to persist within many plants which are later consumed by humans. Additives are another way that a heavy metal like lead is able to persist in food. An issue with lead in food is that consumers can’t minimize the levels on their own through washing produce, because it does not decrease the presence of lead. It is the responsibility of food manufacturers to work towards testing and monitoring for the presence of lead and taking the correct steps to avoid or limit contaminated soil and crops in production that is later eaten by consumers.

Lead consumption is toxic to humans generally, but young children are particularly vulnerable to detrimental and severe long-term effects of consuming too much lead. The FDA created the “Closer to Zero Action Plan” to work towards the goal of achieving the lowest possible level of heavy metal contamination in food products, with a focus on the consumption of heavy metals in baby food. The push towards more regulations on lead contamination in products comes after more research showing a connection between high lead levels in blood and severe physical and neurological effects. A report from September 29, 2021 written by the Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy, found heavy metal contamination in many baby food products and that many companies grossly underestimated the levels of contamination. The most harmful effects of lead consumption occur through longer exposure to the heavy metal and are mainly neurodevelopmental in nature. To determine whether an infant or child has been exposed to lead, doctors can do a blood lead test. Most insurance covers such testing.

The FDA currently faces a difficult challenge, lowering the level of heavy mental levels in food while not decreasing accessibility to nutritional food. Their plan approaches the issue by first evaluating data regarding contamination and exposure, then requires proposals of draft guidance and consultations with stakeholders, and finally focuses on what actions must be taken.

Regulating lead contamination

The new guidelines that the FDA is drafting still do not require staying below certain action levels of lead contamination, although the FDA can pursue enforcement actions as before on a case-by-case basis. The FDA utilizes action levels to regulate products that cannot avoid contaminants to a certain extent. The agency’s position of not mandating that manufacturers comply with being below certain levels of heavy metal contamination is questionable and poses a potential risk of foods with high lead levels and products to make their way on to store shelves.

Experts in the field believe that a mandatory restriction would be more beneficial than a voluntary guideline. In my opinion, mandatory guidelines would help considerably in achieving the goals of the “Closer to Zero Action Plan” and would help to quickly decrease lead levels. However, it does not seem as though the FDA will be making the guidelines mandatory.

Recommendations to consumers

More parents have been turning toward making their own baby food at home to combat lead presence in commercial products, but the FDA warns against this practice because manufacturing companies are better prepared to test for and identify high lead levels in their ingredients. Hopefully new guidelines will help manufacturers decrease lead in their products and in turn decrease harmful effects on vulnerable groups. In my view, the best recommendation regarding decreasing lead exposure in children is for parents to feed their children a wide array of food so as to not expose them to foods that have high lead levels for too long. While there aren’t many actions parents can take to totally eliminate lead contamination in their children’s food, hopefully the FDA and manufacturers continue to lower heavy metal contamination to keep children safe and healthy.