Attorney General James Leads Coalition Urging FDA to Accelerate Actions to Protect Children From Toxic Metals in Baby Food

NEW YORK – New York Attorney General Letitia James, leading a coalition of 23 attorneys general, today petitioned the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to protect the health and well-being of babies across the United States by accelerating actions to remove toxic heavy metals found in infant and toddler foods. The petition responds to rising alarm about the health hazards posed by dangerous heavy metals in these foods, and the failure of baby food brands and their suppliers to aggressively reduce these hazards.

The petition follows a letter sent by Attorney General James, in February 2021, to the acting FDA commissioner, urging the agency to take prompt regulatory action to protect young children from toxic metals in baby foods.

“Every day and across the country, baby food companies are selling products containing dangerous levels of lead and other toxic metals, and urgent action is needed to stop it,” said Attorney General James. “There are common-sense, science-based actions that can drive down the levels of heavy metals in baby foods, which is why we are calling on the FDA to take these actions as soon as possible. No parent should have to worry about the safety of their children’s food. Our children must have the opportunity to live healthy lives, and their parents deserve the peace-of-mind in knowing their babies are safe from the products they consume.”

In February 2021, the U.S. House of Representatives’ Oversight and Reform Committee’s Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy published a report that determined that there are high levels of toxic heavy metals — including arsenic, lead, cadmium, and mercury — in baby foods being sold by at least four of the nation’s seven largest manufacturers. The subcommittee issued a follow-up report last month that urged the FDA “to move expeditiously to set limits for arsenic, lead, cadmium, and mercury in baby foods.”

Though the FDA does set limits on toxic metals in other consumable products — like bottled water, juice, and candy — the agency has failed to adequately regulate baby food, and has, so far, only established just one action level for one type of heavy metal (inorganic arsenic) in one type of baby food product (infant rice cereal). This lack of oversight comes despite the fact that the FDA has concluded that babies’ and young children’s smaller body sizes and metabolisms make them more vulnerable to the harmful neurotoxic effects of these metals.

The petition sent by the attorneys general seeks to strengthen protections for young children by urging the FDA to issue interim action levels for limiting heavy metal contamination in baby food more swiftly than the timelines announced by the FDA in their “Closer to Zero plan,” announced this past April. Under that plan, the FDA would propose guidance on limiting lead in baby food by the middle of 2022, guidance for limiting inorganic arsenic by April 2024, and guidance for limiting cadmium and mercury sometime after April 2024. The members of the “Baby Food Council” — a group created in 2019 by four of the largest baby food brands — have not publicly committed to meeting any particular voluntary targets for reducing the levels of heavy metals in their products, pending FDA action.

Specifically, today’s petition calls on the FDA to: 

  • Propose science-based, achievability-focused interim limits for inorganic arsenic, lead, cadmium, and mercury in relevant categories of infant and toddler foods;
  • Propose a lower limit for inorganic arsenic in infant rice cereal than that currently set forth in FDA guidance; and
  • Instruct all baby food manufacturers to test their finished products for toxic heavy metals.

The coalition of attorneys general urge the FDA to take these actions no later than April 2022 — the shortest timeframe for requesting FDA action on a petition under the agency’s regulations.

In addition to today’s petition, Attorney General James launched a probe in April into several manufacturers of baby food regarding levels of inorganic arsenic found in infant rice cereal products. The Office of the Attorney General has requested information from the companies that make Gerber, Beech-Nut, Earth’s Best (Hain), and HappyBABY (Nurture) brands to examine whether infant rice cereal products that have been sold in New York contain, or contained, inorganic arsenic in concentrations exceeding the FDA-prescribed action level. Attorney General James is also seeking information about the advertising and promotion of these products to assess their compliance with New York’s consumer protection laws.

“Our babies cannot wait,” said Scott Faber, senior vice president of government affairs, Environment Working Group (EWG). “For too long, it’s been the food companies, not the FDA, that have decided whether our food is safe to eat. And our babies have been paying the price. It’s time for the FDA to act, but the FDA’s plan to set levels for toxic metals in baby food is far too slow. The FDA must set interim standards for baby food companies right away, and the evidence shows that companies can meet tough standards, but only when the FDA decides to set them. EWG applauds Attorney General James and her colleagues for making our babies’ health her top priority.”

“Baby food products with concerning levels of toxic heavy metals continue to be manufactured and sold, and it's becoming increasingly evident that the timelines in the FDA's ‘Closer To Zero’ plan for addressing this critical public health issue are inadequate,” said Brian Ronholm, director of food policy, Consumer Reports. “Consumer Reports strongly supports the expedited, science-based approach called for in Attorney General James' petition, which offers a much-needed path to ensuring the safety of the baby food parents and caregivers serve their children every day.”

“Babies are exquisitely sensitive to heavy metals,” said Dr. Philip J. Landrigan, pediatrician and director of Global Public Health, Boston College. “No level of metal exposure is safe for a young child, and early-life exposures to even very low levels of lead, arsenic cadmium, and mercury increase risks of brain damage, cancer, anemia, and kidney damage. As a pediatrician who has worked for decades to protect children against toxic chemicals in the environment, I strongly endorse Attorney General Letitia James' effort to compel the FDA to rapidly reduce toxic metal levels in baby foods.”

Joining Attorney General James in sending today’s petition to the FDA are the attorneys general of California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, Nevada, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin.

This matter is being handled by Assistant Attorneys General Max Shterngel and Brian Lusignan, Chief Environmental Scientist Jodi Feld, Environmental Scientist Joseph E. Haas, II, and Science Intern Zachary Krauss — all under the supervision of Bureau Chief Lemuel M. Srolovic and all of the Environmental Protection Bureau. The Environmental Protection Bureau is a part of the Division for Social Justice, which is led by Chief Deputy Attorney General Meghan Faux. The matter is also being handled by Senior Advisor and Special Counsel M. Umair Khan and Policy Analyst Melanie Weniger — both of the Executive Division. Both the Division for Social Justice and the Executive Division are overseen by First Deputy Attorney General Jennifer Levy.