Many babies' first solid food is rice cereal. It is a childhood staple, commonly recommended by pediatricians. And it is often poisoned—at least a little bit. Studies have found that many brands contain measurable amounts of inorganic arsenic, the most toxic kind. It's not just rice: an August 2018 study by Consumer Reports tested 50 foods made for babies and toddlers, including organic and nonorganic brands such as Gerber, Earth's Best, Beech-Nut and other popular labels, and found evidence of at least one dangerous heavy metal in every product. Fifteen of the 50 contained enough contaminants to pose potential health risks to a child eating one serving or less a day.
Heavy metals can impair cognitive development in children, who are especially at risk because of their smaller size and tendency to absorb more of these substances than adults do. Inorganic arsenic in drinking water has been found to lower the IQ scores of children by five to six points. And as heavy metals accumulate in the body over time, they can raise the risk of cancer, reproductive problems, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cognitive issues. Of course, finding out your favorite brand is contaminated is not a reason to panic. Low levels of exposure for short periods are unlikely to cause devastating effects, and parents should focus on reducing the overall levels of these toxic substances in their children's total diet to limit harm.
Heavy metals occur naturally on Earth and are present in soil and water. But pesticides, mining and pollution boost their concentrations, and farming and food manufacturing processes can contribute even more. Some crops inevitably absorb more heavy metals. Rice, for example, readily takes in arsenic both because of its particular physiology and because it is often grown in fields flooded with water, which is a primary source of the metal.
Cereal makers are clearly capable of keeping baby food poison-free: roughly a third of the products Consumer Reports tested did not contain worrisome metal levels. Companies just do not take enough safety steps. “If industry can do a better job of sourcing the raw food, that would go a long way [to reduce the danger],” says James Dickerson, chief scientific officer at Consumer Reports. “And then if [manufacturers] consider contamination through internal pathways—equipment, processes and the containers they use for the food—I think we can get there.”
Some companies are already trying to investigate the sources of contamination in their products and reduce them. More should follow and be transparent about these efforts. But the best chance of real change from food companies most likely will come with regulation.
Currently there are no U.S. rules on acceptable levels of heavy metals in baby foods. In 2012, 2015 and 2017 Congress tried and failed to pass legislation imposing limits on arsenic and lead in fruit juice and rice products. The FDA proposed issuing new caps on the amount of arsenic allowed in rice cereal in 2016 and in apple juice in 2013, but neither of these proposals ever came to fruition. A March 2018 Government Accountability Office report found that the FDA has not moved quickly enough to finalize the rules or communicate the potential risk to the public. The agency needs to set safe and strict targets, supported by scientific studies, for these substances, ideally by establishing incremental benchmarks that lower the allowable levels over time.
And this is just a start. In 2018 a group of scientists and policy experts suggested a variety of interventions at every step of the pathway from farm to table. These steps would help fight the problem both in the U.S. and abroad, especially in developing countries where toxic substances in baby food can be devastating to children who already suffer from poor nutrition. For one, researchers should conduct more studies on which foods in our diet are the primary contributors of heavy metals and the best ways to reduce the contamination in each of those crops. Food manufacturers can do better and more frequent testing of their source crops as well as their factory methods. Scientists, doctors and governments can also better communicate these health risks and the best ways to avoid them to the public. For instance, cooking rice in copious amounts of water can help flush contaminants out, and parents should feed babies a variety of grain cereals rather than just rice.
There are many ways to deal with this problem. Congress, the FDA, the food industry, scientists and doctors should unite to tackle a serious threat to our most vulnerable population.