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January 12, 2022

Take a look at what’s in your kitchen right now.

Research has shown that a wide array of products, from baby food to spices, tuna and frozen pizzas, even those from well-known brands and organic labels, contain toxic heavy metals like lead and mercury. No matter where you live, pollution reaches us all through the products we buy and consume daily because of our complex global food supply chain. 

In the U.S., public outcry followed the release of a U.S. Congressional report in February 2021, which revealed widespread contamination of baby foods with dangerous levels of lead, mercury, and other toxic heavy metals. A followup report in September 2021 noted that toxic baby foods were still on the country’s supermarket shelves. Then in November, a Consumer Report study found almost one third of spices they tested from a variety of brands contained heavy metal levels high enough to raise health concerns.

While regulators have discussed the issue, so far there has been little action on protecting the food supply chain.

“It’s great that the Biden administration is increasing investment to prevent lead exposure domestically, but we won’t completely solve this problem until we prevent pollution at the source coming from countries with little pollution management infrastructure,” says Richard Fuller, CEO of Pure Earth. 

“The fact that H.R. 2229, the Baby Food Safety Act of 2021—designed to protect infants from heavy metal contamination in popular brands of baby food—is stalled in Congress is baffling. The toxic lead found in baby food is getting to our homes the same way it is in spices.” 

Spices contaminated with lead and other toxic heavy metals are often found in kitchens worldwide because of our complex global food supply chain. Photo: akhil chandran, Unsplash.

 

To help craft a solution, Pure Earth and other public health experts met with representatives of the U.S. Congress (Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy, Committee on Oversight and Reform) in March 2021 to brief legislators on toxic heavy metals contaminating foods, and discuss solutions to protect families.

Pure Earth CEO Richard Fuller and Pure Earth Head of Research Dr. Jack Caravanos joined Jackie Bowen (Clean Label Project), Dr. Stephanie Canale (Lactation Lab), Dr. Jenna Forsyth (Stanford University), and Dr. Paromita Hore (NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene).

While contaminated baby food was the key issue at hand in that meeting, Fuller reminded the legislators present that the problem of toxic heavy metal contamination was much broader, affecting spices, supplements, and a range of imported foods and products found on store shelves across the country. 

The discussion touched on the following issues:

Testing and Tracing

Because the sources of heavy metal contamination (the ingredients) are largely international, any solution must require testing and tracing to reduce contamination at the source. In other words, solutions must include global action in mostly low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), where agricultural products get contaminated in the first place.

Currently, large manufacturers claim they are testing, but Fuller pointed out a loophole that needs to be addressed: If a large producer rejects a batch, the contaminated materials would simply flow to another (potentially smaller) manufacturer with less oversight, and the toxic materials would still end up poisoning children.

“We need a mechanism to trace food stuffs with heavy metal contamination back to the point of production origin, with funding available for the environmental cleanup work that we know how to do. This would stop the problem at its source. Unless there’s a process to help international buyers and suppliers, we’re all going to keep dealing with this contaminated imported food issue,” said Fuller.

Labeling

The group also suggested changes to labeling requirements, especially for products currently carrying the organic label.  There are no requirements for heavy metal testing for products deemed “organic”.   Jackie Bowen clarified that we also need to address heavy metal testing and labeling at lower price points for non-organics as well.

Public Education

Paromita Hore shared that in New York City, there has been a multi-pronged approach: identify sources of contamination, work to educate, and enforce when possible. In 2019, the city launched a campaign targeting the South Asian community when testing of products found high levels of lead and other heavy metals in spices like turmeric imported from South Asia.

Next Steps

The Baby Food Safety Act of 2021 was introduced by Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi in March 2021, and includes efforts to address many of the issues we brought up.

The bill sets new maximum levels of toxic heavy metals in baby food and requires manufacturers to comply within one year, and for levels to be lowered further within two years. It also calls for manufacturers to test final products – not just ingredients – for toxic heavy metals and make the results public.

The bill lowers maximum levels of toxic heavy metals in baby foods to 10 ppb (15 ppb for cereal) for arsenic; 5 ppb (10 ppb for cereal) for lead; 5 ppb (10 ppb for cereal) for cadmium; and 2 ppb for mercury.

According to CNN, the bill also earmarks $50 million for the National Academy of Sciences to research agricultural ways to minimize heavy metals. In addition, the bill would also require the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to implement a campaign to educate parents and others on the dangers of heavy metals.

While the bill is currently awaiting action on Capitol Hill, many families along with 23 Attorneys General are demanding that the FDA take action. But as reported by Fox News, the FDA won’t finalize limits for all heavy metals until after the Spring of 2024.

Pure Earth and colleagues in the industry will keep an eye on developments and remain in contact with legislators to provide further guidance.

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