By Lucas Laursen
August 17, 2018

Two-thirds of baby foods tested by Consumer Reports (CR) had “worrisome” levels of a heavy metal such as lead or mercury, the product-testing organization has warned.

CR tested for cadmium, lead, mercury, and inorganic arsenic in 50 packaged foods for babies and toddlers in the U.S. Heavy metals are toxic to the human body and accumulate over time when people eat food containing them, and through environmental exposure. The substances can contribute to cancers, neurological diseases, diabetes, reproductive issues, and cardiovascular disease.

Baby food is big business: it was worth around $53 billion in 2015 and one projection puts it at $76 billion by 2021.

It is also the subject of increasing scrutiny. A separate private food certification organization reported last year that 80% of the 530 infant formulas it tested contained contaminants.

Both that study and the new CR report found that foods containing rice were likelier to contain high levels of arsenic, and some also had elevated lead and cadmium levels. These and the other tested-for metals occur naturally in the environment and can be absorbed by plants as they grow. But human activities, including pesticide application, mining and the use of leaded gasoline, can pollute the environment with higher levels, making our food more poisonous.

The CR report found what it called “concerning” levels of lead in Beech-Nut Classics Sweet Potatoes, Earth’s Best Organic Sweet Potatoes, and Gerber Turkey & Rice. CR purchased one sample of each of those products in California, which has its own limit on lead levels, and it said it believed the levels it found violated those limits. There are currently no federally mandated limits for heavy metals in baby food.

On a positive note, the CR report found 16 of the 50 foods it tested had “less concerning” levels of heavy metals. James Rogers, director of food safety research and testing at CR, said: “Every category of food we tested was represented in that lower-risk group. That indicates that there are ways for manufacturers to significantly reduce or eliminate these metals from their products.”

In response, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) told CR it would finalize guidelines limiting inorganic arsenic in apple juice and infant rice cereal, and that it would conduct a consumer education campaign and consider pressuring manufacturers to reduce heavy metal levels.

The study also found that organic foods did not differ from non-organic ones.

Beech-Nut issued a statement noting that “the difficulty with lead, in particular, is that it is naturally occurring and widely present in soil,.”

“We would welcome the opportunity to work with the FDA on science-based standards that food suppliers can implement across our industry,” the company added.

Hain Celestial (which owns Earth’s Best Organic) and Gerber have not yet replied to questions from Fortune.

 

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