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FDA proposes limits for lead in baby food

The headquarters of the Food and Drug Administration in White Oak, Maryland.Sarah Silbiger/Photographer: Sarah Silbiger/Get

The Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday proposed maximum limits for the amount of lead in baby foods including mashed fruits and vegetables and dry cereals after years of studies revealed that many processed products contained levels known to pose a risk of neurological and developmental harm.

The agency issued draft guidance, which would not be mandatory for food manufacturers to abide by. If finalized after a 60-day period for public comment, the guidelines would allow the agency to take enforcement action against companies that produced foods that exceeded the new limits.

“This is really important progress for babies,” said Scott Faber, vice president of public affairs for the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organization that had urged the agency to take action to remove metals from foods.

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The new limits, aimed at foods for children younger than 2, do not address grain-based snacks that have also been found to contain high levels of heavy metals. And they do not limit other metals, like cadmium, that the agency and many consumer groups have detected in infant foods in previous years.

Jane Houlihan, research director for Healthy Babies Bright Futures, a nonprofit, called the guidelines disappointing. “It doesn’t go far enough to protect babies from neurodevelopmental damage from lead exposures,” she said. “Lead is in almost every baby food we’ve tested, and the action levels that FDA has set will influence almost none of that food.”

The agency guidelines would set levels that do not exceed 10 parts per billion of lead in yogurts, fruits, or vegetables and 20 parts per billion in root vegetables and dry infant cereals.

The FDA said the proposed levels “would result in significant reductions in exposures to lead from food while ensuring availability of nutritious foods.”

The proposed levels “will result in long-term, meaningful and sustainable reductions in the exposure to this contaminant from foods,” said Dr. Robert Califf, the commissioner of the FDA. It would allow the agency to deem foods in excess of the limits “adulterated,” which would let the FDA seek a recall, seize products, or recommend a criminal prosecution.

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The agency estimated the proposed levels announced today could reduce some children’s dietary exposure to lead by about 25 percent. According to the agency, low levels of lead exposure in children can lead to “learning disabilities, behavior difficulties and lowered IQ,” as well as immunological and cardiovascular effects.