Attorney General James Demands Swift Federal Action To Protect Children From Toxic Metals In Baby Foods

June 28, 2022

New York Attorney General Letitia James led a multistate coalition of 22 attorneys general calling on the heads of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Department of Agriculture (USDA) to take swift action to eliminate toxic metals from baby food.

In a letter to FDA Commissioner Robert M. Califf, Deputy Commissioner Frank Yiannis, and USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, the coalition urged the federal agencies to take immediate actions to drive down the levels of dangerous toxic metals in food for babies and young children.

This is the latest action in a series of efforts led by Attorney General James in response to increasing alarm regarding the health hazards posed by lead, arsenic, cadmium, and mercury in baby foods, including infant cereals, purees, and other products for babies and young children, aside from formula. 

“No parent should have to worry about whether the food they serve their children is safe to eat,” said Attorney General James. “While our federal food safety watchdogs are working to implement critical long-term solutions, there are immediate, common-sense steps they can take that would begin to drive down the levels of toxic metals in baby foods.

The FDA and USDA must act now — and give parents the peace of mind they deserve in the safety of the food they feed their children.” 

The FDA has set or proposed limits on toxic metals in a wide variety of other consumable products — such as bottled water, juice, and candy — but the agency has failed to adequately regulate baby food.

So far, the agency has established only one action level for one type of toxic metal (inorganic arsenic) in one type of baby food product (infant rice cereal), despite FDA concluding years ago that babies’ and young children’s smaller bodies and metabolisms make them more vulnerable to the harmful neurological effects of these toxic metals. As a result, U.S. baby food manufacturers are left to self-regulate the amounts of lead and other toxic metals in their products.

In fact, it remains up to the manufacturers to decide whether to even test their products for these contaminants. 

In April 2021, FDA announced the “Closer to Zero” plan, under which the agency committed to proposing “action levels” for lead in various baby foods by April 2022, inorganic arsenic in various baby foods by April 2024, and cadmium and mercury sometime after April 2024.

However, the coalition notes that the plan is already behind schedule since the FDA failed to propose lead action levels by the April deadline.

This delay is both a public health concern and a matter of environmental justice, as low-income children and children of color are disproportionately impacted by lead through exposure to lead-based paint, lead in drinking water pipes, and other sources.

Lead in their food only exacerbates the existing inordinate and inequitable hazards these children face.  

In their letter, the coalition urges the federal government to adopt interim measures recommended in Attorney General James’ and the coalition’s October 2021 petition, which urged FDA to issue clear industry guidance for limiting toxic metals, such as:  

  • Propose interim limits for inorganic arsenic, lead, cadmium, and mercury in relevant categories of infant and toddler foods; 
  • Propose a lower limit for inorganic arsenic in infant rice cereal than that currently set forth in FDA guidance; and, 
  • Provide guidance to all baby food manufacturers to test their finished products for toxic metals. 

The FDA denied the petition, but earlier this month, the coalition asked FDA to expeditiously reconsider its denial of that petition.    

Attorney General James continues to be a national leader in child food safety. Earlier this year, she demanded baby food brand HolleUSA stop false or misleading advertising of its products as “lead-free” after laboratory testing revealed that several of its baby foods available in New York contained detectable levels of lead, cadmium, and arsenic.

In response, HolleUSA promptly removed the misleading logos and statements. In April 2021, the Attorney General launched an ongoing probe into several manufacturers of baby food regarding levels of inorganic arsenic found in infant rice cereal products and the advertising of these products.  

Joining Attorney General James in sending this letter to FDA and USDA leadership are the attorneys general of California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, Nevada, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Washington, and Wisconsin. 

“FDA is failing our babies,” said Scott Faber, senior vice president for government affairs, Environmental Working Group. “Every day, 10,000 babies start eating solid food, so we have no time to waste when it comes to reducing toxic metals in baby food. The FDA has already missed one deadline, even though the evidence of harm to our babies’ brains is overwhelming. EWG applauds Attorney General James and her coalition for continuing to push the FDA to make our babies a top priority.” 

“Babies are exquisitely sensitive to heavy metals,” said Dr. Philip J. Landrigan, pediatrician and director of Global Public Health, Boston College. “No level of metal exposure is safe for a young child, and early-life exposures to even very low levels of lead, arsenic, cadmium, and mercury increase risks of brain damage, cancer, anemia, and kidney damage. As a pediatrician who has worked for decades to protect children against toxic chemicals in the environment, I strongly endorse the coalition of attorneys general in urging the FDA and USDA to rapidly reduce toxic metal levels in baby foods and to avoid any further delay in safeguarding babies’ health.” 

“There’s simply no time to waste — and no excuse for waiting — to better protect children’s developing brains from these toxic contaminants,” said Tom Neltner, senior director, Safer Chemicals at Environmental Defense Fund. “We commend Attorney General James and the coalition for keeping this issue front and center. FDA must meet its commitment to truly bring the levels of these toxic contaminants closer to zero, and do so as quickly as possible.” 

“Parents and caregivers shouldn’t have to tolerate unnecessary delays in reducing the levels of toxic metals in food for babies and young children,” said Brian Ronholm, director of food policy, Consumer Reports. “The health hazards posed by lead, arsenic, cadmium, and mercury in these foods are troubling and it’s incumbent upon the FDA and USDA to act swiftly to protect our children from these toxic metals, especially when industry fails to act.” 

This matter is being handled by Assistant Attorneys General Max Shterngel and Brian Lusignan, and Chief Environmental Scientist Jodi Feld, under the supervision of Bureau Chief Lemuel M. Srolovic of the Environmental Protection Bureau, which is a part of the Division for Social Justice led by Chief Deputy Attorney General Meghan Faux.

The matter is also being handled by Senior Advisor and Special Counsel M. Umair Khan of the Executive Division.

Both the Division for Social Justice and the Executive Division are overseen by First Deputy Attorney General Jennifer Levy.

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