- About 20% of baby food tested by the Food and Drug Administration between 2003 and 2013 had some amount of lead detected, according to a study released last week by the Environmental Defense Fund. The presence of lead was detected in 14% of samples of other food. The amount of lead in all samples fell under FDA's acceptable guidelines.
- EDF didn't look at brands or products, the amount of lead in specific samples or how it might have got there. The study reiterates there is no safe amount of lead in food, especially for babies.
- Lead was most commonly found in fruit juices for babies — 89% of grape juice, 67% of mixed fruit juice, 55% of apple juice and 45% of pear juice — root vegetables — 86% of sweet potatoes and 43% of carrots — and cookies — 64% of arrowroot and 47% of teething biscuits.
This study provides an important health warning, but its warning is squarely focused on manufacturers and regulators. It names no brands or products, clearly sending the message that all manufacturers need to do better to produce less contaminated items. It also tells regulators it is time to take a closer look at the amounts of lead that are allowed in food products.
The FDA last established safe lead consumption levels for young children in 1993. Those guidelines indicate 6 micrograms of the substance would be acceptable, but caution the numbers could be revisited as more is known about lead. According to the Environmental Defense Fund study, the FDA indicated last month the agency may take another look at them.
Researchers said on a conference call explaining the study that the lead could come from sources ranging from factory processes to soil contamination. The exact processes that need to be changed to solve this problem are unknown.
According to the University of Minnesota Extension, lead contamination of soil is a pervasive issue, especially because the element tends not to move or disperse by itself. It is not often absorbed by plants themselves, though it has been known to come through in root crops and leafy greens. Experts recommend washing and peeling potentially affected produce.
The study says there are a few ways lead can contaminate food through processing. Items can be contaminated by emissions during the shipping process, some types of packaging material, or by deteriorating machinery at factories. Lead-free products also can be contaminated by coming into contact with soil containing the element.
A study like this is good to call the industry's attention to a problem, but it doesn't do much for the consumer. Parents who are concerned about their children's health won't know which brands or baby food items to avoid (though the American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended against juice for different reasons). While this information pushes parents to be advocates, it doesn't help them feel safe with any product. For consumers, this study might be best read alongside others, such as the Clean Label Project's forthcoming baby food ratings, which will indicate the products that are least contaminated.