Why are there still no limits on lead in baby foods?

Despite extensive efforts to limit lead exposure from sources such as paint and gasoline, the U.S. government does not broadly limit lead levels in food, a blind spot that has become even more evident. As cases of lead poisoning in young children linked to contaminated applesauce and cinnamon continue to rise, experts say.

As of Tuesday, cases of lead poisoning had been reported in at least 65 children, all under 6 years oldwho had ingested bags of applesauce and applesauce with cinnamon, compared to 57 cases two weeks ago, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA, in English).

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), children under 6 years old are most vulnerable to lead poisoning. This heavy metal can cause developmental problems, damage to the brain and nervous system, and problems with learning, behavior, hearing, and speech. According to the CDC, lead exposure can reduce IQ and school performance.

Bags of cinnamon applesauce from Weis, WanaBana and Schnucks that have been recalled.FDA

Efforts to establish guidelines to limit children’s exposure to lead date back to the 1980s, when the government began working to reduce children’s exposure to lead from paint and gasoline, as well as from packaging. of some foods, such as lead-soldered cans, explained Dr. Leonardo Trasande, director of environmental pediatrics at NYU Langone Health.

The United States has successfully reduced exposure to lead paint, which remains the leading cause of lead poisoning in children, Trasande said. However, until recently there had been no focus on limiting lead directly in foods. In 2022, the FDA introduced Limits for lead levels in apple juice and fruit extract drinks and also established standards for lead in candy made with sugar.

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Lead is an element naturally present in the Earth’s crust and can be found in soil, water and air. Traces can infiltrate the food supply in a variety of ways, such as where food is grown, raised or processed.

This makes it virtually impossible to remove all traces of lead from food, Trasande explained. Still, “we must test our foods and support the FDA’s efforts to review them,” she said.

The FDA systematically monitors levels of toxic elements in foods, including lead, according to Dr. Adam Keating, a primary care pediatrician at the Cleveland Clinic. He may also investigate certain products and initiate recalls, as he did with applesauce and cinnamon pouches after receiving numerous reports from parents about children with elevated levels of lead in their blood.

However, the agency’s oversight of food is not as rigorous as its oversight of prescription drugs, which includes monitoring the testing, manufacturing, marketing and distribution of drugs, Keating explained. Instead, the FDA places much of the responsibility for food oversight on the farmers or manufacturers of the products.

“Therefore, the risk of contamination is greater than in the case of medications,” he explained.

Although the FDA cannot eliminate all traces of lead in foods, it can set a minimum acceptable standard for products, Keating said.

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Laurie Beyranevand, director of the Center for Agriculture and Food Systems at Vermont Graduate School of Law, said the FDA has been working to set more limits for lead in food for years, but has started taking more “targeted action.” to set limits on baby foods in 2021.

That’s when a Congressional investigation found that major commercial brands of baby foods were contaminated with significant levels of arsenic, lead, cadmium and mercury.

Joanne Slavin, a professor in the Department of Food Science and Nutrition at the University of Minnesota, applauded the FDA’s work to set new limits, and said it can be difficult to agree on recommended levels of lead because fruits, vegetables, and whole grains contain varying amounts of this heavy metal.

“The new rules are welcome,” he said.

However, the FDA could have acted sooner.

“Most of the time, it takes a crisis or pressure from Congress for food to take action,” he added.

The FDA did not respond to a request for comment.

In January, agency proposed limits on lead levels in processed baby foods that – he stated – could reduce exposure to this contaminant by up to 27%.

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The agency’s guidelines – which are not expected to be finalized until 2025 – would limit the concentration of lead in fruits, yogurt and certain plant products to 10 parts per 1 billion. It would also limit it to 20 parts per 1 billion in dry cereals and single-ingredient products made from root vegetables, such as mashed potatoes. (One of the recalled applesauce pouches tested by the FDA had lead levels of 2.18 parts per million, more than 200 times the proposed levels, the FDA said.)

Beyranevand said the agency’s new guidelines would be helpful in reducing lead exposure in children and called them a “firm stance.”

Brian Ronholm, director of food policy at Consumer Reports, a nonprofit group that researches the safety of the food system, said it makes sense for the FDA to focus first on foods intended for babies and young children, considering that Children are a “key population” that must be protected from lead exposure.

However, he said the proposed limits for lead in baby foods appear to be based on what the agency believes the industry can achieve, rather than what would be most beneficial to public health. “In my opinion, they are not low enough,” Ronholm said.

In 2018, Consumer Reports measured lead levels in 50 baby foods and found that 80% had levels below 10 parts per 1 billion.

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Yes ok There is no safe level of lead in food.Ronholm commented that the limit should be closer to 3 parts per 1 billion.

The FDA may get more help from Congress to set limits on heavy metals in foods.

Bills have already been introduced, such as the Children’s Food Safety Act of 2021, by Democratic Senators Tammy Duckworth of Illinois and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, which would set limits on heavy metals in children’s foods.

The legislation did not pass during the last session of Congress, but a spokesperson for Klobuchar’s office told NBC News in a statement that the senators plan to reintroduce the legislation shortly. Among other provisions, it would set the limit of lead allowed in most children’s foods at 5 parts per billion.

Meanwhile, experts say there’s a limit to what the FDA — or the public — can do.

The FDA can take regulatory action on certain products, such as opening an investigation or forcing them to be removed from the market, if it deems them unsafe, Ronholm explained. But often, he explained, that doesn’t happen until the agency has already received reports of sick people and determined that it is an illness. “imminent threat”.

Keating of the Cleveland Clinic said parents can protect their children by routinely testing them for lead in their blood, as well as visiting a doctor to make sure their development is normal.