According to a Jan. 24 press release on the FDA's website, the move is part of its "Closer to Zero" program – setting forth the agency's science-based approach to "continually reduce exposure to lead, arsenic, cadmium and mercury to the lowest levels possible in foods eaten by babies and young children."
"For more than 30 years, the FDA has been working to reduce exposure to lead and other environmental contaminants from foods. This work has resulted in a dramatic decline in lead exposure from foods since the mid-1980s," said FDA Commissioner Robert M. Califf.
"The proposed action levels, along with our continued work with our state and federal partners, and with industry and growers to identify mitigation strategies, will result in long-term, meaningful and sustainable reductions in the exposure to this contaminant from food."
Under the new guidelines, the FDA projects an estimated 24 to 27 percent reduction in lead exposure from baby food. Allowable levels of lead in baby foods will be set at 20 parts per billion (ppb) or less. Baby foods covered by the new proposal include processed baby foods sold in boxes, jars, pouches and tubs for kids in the target age range.
The proposed limits would not be binding, as per the regulator. However, it said it "would consider these action levels, in addition to other factors, when considering whether to bring enforcement action" against a food manufacturer that exceeds the limits.
"Although it is not possible to remove these elements entirely from the food supply, we expect that the recommended action levels will cause manufacturers to implement agricultural and processing measures to lower lead levels," the release stated.
According to studies, high levels of lead exposure can cause brain damage and other problems, particularly in young children. (Related: Leading baby food brands contain arsenic and lead levels that damage the brain, causing autism in young children.)
"Neurological effects of lead exposure during early childhood include learning disabilities, behavior difficulties and lowered IQ. Because lead can accumulate in the body, even low-level chronic exposure can be hazardous over time," the FDA said.
The guidelines will undergo a 60-day period of public comment before being finalized.
The proposed guidelines for lead levels in baby food did not sit well with some critics, however, with some saying they cannot protect children enough from heavy metals in baby food.
Jane Houlihan of the Healthy Babies Bright Futures (HBBF) coalition said that while any action on the part of the FDA is welcome, its suggested limits on lead in baby food aren't low enough to move the needle. "Nearly all baby foods on the market already comply with what they have proposed," she said.
Houlihan, HBBF's national director of science and health, authored a 2019 report that found dangerous levels of lead and other heavy metals in 95 percent of manufactured baby food. The said report prompted a congressional investigation in 2021, with lawmakers discovering that leading baby food manufacturers knowingly sold products with high levels of toxic metals.
"The FDA hasn't done enough with these proposed lead limits to protect babies and young children from lead's harmful effects. There is no known safe level of lead exposure, and children are particularly vulnerable," she pointed out.
Brian Ronholm, food policy director for the nonprofit group Consumer Reports (CR), also raised concerns. A CR report from 2018 found "concerning" levels of lead and other heavy metals in 50 baby foods. Citing the said report, he pointed out that "15 of them would pose a risk to a child who ate one serving or less per day."
"The FDA should be encouraging industry to work harder to reduce hazardous lead and other heavy metals in baby food, given how vulnerable young children are to toxic exposure," Ronholm said in a statement.
Watch Jefferey Jaxen and Del Bigtree discuss on "The HighWire" a 2021 study by Consumer Reports about baby foods with dangerous levels of heavy metals.
This video is from The HighWire with Del Bigtree channel on Brighteon.com.