July 18 (UPI) — The Food and Drug Administration found significant levels of toxic heavy metals in the U.S. food supply during its ongoing monitoring efforts, the agency said in a new report. And baby foods were among the most contaminated for arsenic and lead.
The FDA’s report analyzes the most recent data on nutrients and contaminants from its ongoing survey aimed at promoting food safety.
In its report, the FDA found lead in 15% of food samples, arsenic in 43% and cadmium in 61%.
The agency’s analysis also found that out of 384 baby food samples collected, 51% had detectable levels of total arsenic. The highest levels of arsenic were found in infant cereals and items like teething biscuits and puffed snacks, the agency said.
In the baby food, the agency found 65% of the samples contained cadmium, 21% contained lead and 3% contained mercury, based on the FDA’s percentage listing of samples that were clean, not contaminated.
Charlotte Brody, a registered nurse by training and national director of Healthy Babies Bright Futures, said she worries the federal agency may be overstating the positives.
“There’s not supposed to be lead or arsenic or cadmium in any foods. So the fact they make it seem like a victory is very troubling,” Brody told UPI in a phone interview Monday.
Moreover, Brody told UPI in a follow-up email that levels of contaminants in baby foods continue to be worrisome.
“Of all foods tested, baby foods were among the most contaminated with inorganic arsenic (the dangerous kind) and the most contaminated of all foods for lead,” she said in the email.
Scientists say toxic heavy metals endanger infants’ neurological development and long-term brain functioning. Babies and children are most vulnerable to neuro-toxic effects.
Brody added that the government’s latest findings — and much of the positive spin — may be due to its method for detecting contaminants.
“It’s not that food has gotten so much better. It’s what the detection limits are,” she said.
Brody noted that the FDA has set a higher level for detection of food contaminants than her group, which issued a 2019 report that found one or more heavy metals in 94% of baby foods tested.
“Part of it is the FDA’s higher detection limits and part of it is real,” Brody said.
She added: “We read this report as regulations work and there need to be more of them,” she said. “Where there’s been attention, food is cleaner than it used to be.”
According to the new FDA report, the highest lead concentrations were in baking powder, cocoa powder, baby food sweet potatoes, baby food teething biscuits and sandwich cookies.
The foods with the highest cadmium concentrations were sunflower seeds and spinach. “While cadmium was detected in most vegetable samples, many concentrations were low,” the FDA said.
The foods with the highest arsenic concentrations were seafoods, including baked cod, canned tuna and fish sticks.
The study — begun in 1961 and modernized starting in 2013 — uses foods collected from retail stores to measure concentrations of various nutrients and contaminants.
The FDA describes its “Total Diet Study Report” as “an essential tool” to help the agency prioritize food safety and nutrition efforts.
The FDA’s latest report analyzes data from federal fiscal years 2018 through 2020 for which the agency conducted 87 food collections, resulting in 3,241 samples of 305 foods and beverages.
Such monitoring is part of the agency’s action plan, called Closer to Zero, which was announced in April 2021, to reduce toxic elements in foods for babies and children.
“Looking at what people eat, and the TDS [total diet study], has always been part of FDA’s work. But they’ve added more on baby food as part of this study report,” Brody said.
In fiscal year 2019, the FDA began additional sampling of baby foods as part of its ongoing dietary study.
On the plus side, Brody said, it’s helpful that the food industry is paying attention to contamination and figuring out what to do about it.
Arsenic in infant’s rice cereal, for example, “is lower than it used to be, because things can get better” from advocacy groups’ involvement in such food safety issues, she said.
“But 10,000 more babies start eating solid food every day, and the pace of regulation at the FDA needs to be much faster than it is,” Brody said.
In addition to its analysis of toxins, the FDA’s report also looked at certain nutrients in food — calcium, iodine, iron and potassium — seen as being of public health interest because inadequate intakes of them can impact health.
The foods with the highest concentration of calcium were American cheese, baby food teething biscuits and baby multi-grain cereal, while the foods with the highest concentration of potassium were potato chips, raisins and protein powder.
Calcium and potassium were detected in every vegetable sample, and iron in nearly every sample, the FDA said in its report, while calcium, iron and potassium were detected in more than 90% of fruit samples.
The FDA said roughly 70% of the foods it analyzed in 2017 were used in the latest study. But some foods that are highly consumed in the United States, such as soy milk and coconut milk, were added. Some, like liver and sherbet, were removed.
Tom Neltner, chemical policy director for the Washington-based Environmental Defense Fund, whose focus is on food additive safety, told UPI he is pleased to see FDA release “these long overdue data.”
In June, the FDA agreed to reconsider the safety of using bisphenol A in polycarbonate plastics, metal can coatings and other materials in contact with food, which may result in strict new limits on the chemical. This came in response to a petition led by the Environmental Defense Fund.
FDA will make a final decision by Oct. 31.