“Toxic metals” in baby food – should you be concerned?

“Toxins” in food and personal care products make headlines regularly, and last week, it’s a congressional report about baby food that has made the rounds in the media. If you have missed it, this Associated Press article summarized the news in a way that’s pretty representative of most media reports.

In a nutshell, the impetus of the congressional report was a 2019 study published by a non-profit called Healthy Babies Bright Futures. After the study raised questions about heavy metals in baby food products, the U.S. House Subcommittee requested internal data from several food companies and did its own analysis. The result: the subcommittee concluded that leading brands of baby food (Nurture, Beech-Nut, Hain, and Gerber) “are tainted with dangerous levels of arsenic, lead, cadmium, and mercury,” including organic products. The report also revealed that Walmart, Campbell Food, and Sprout Organic Foods refused to cooperate and share data for the subcommittee’s investigation.

So should you be concerned?

I’m dedicating an entire blog post to this news item today not because I have a particular interest in heavy metals or baby food, but because the public responses to this report are pretty emblematic of the way that issues of health, science, and sustainability are often communicated, discussed, and interpreted (or misinterpreted). So let this be a case study of how our public discourse on these issues could be more informed, sensible, and holistic, and what lessons we could draw from it.

Lesson 1: regulators need to do their job, uh regulating

Let’s state the obvious first: this news is and should be framed as a regulatory failure. Looking through the report, you’ll see that the subcommittee spent most of its pages explaining why heavy metals are dangerous to children’s health, what the data from manufacturers showed, and how industry self-regulation failed to protect consumers. In the 6-page executive summary, it didn’t start talking about the government’s role in this until page 5: “To this day, baby foods containing toxic heavy metals bear no label or warning to parents. Manufacturers are free to test only ingredients [as opposed to the whole final product], or, for the vast majority of baby foods, to conduct no testing at all. FDA has only finalized one metal standard for one narrow category of baby food, setting a 100 ppb inorganic arsenic standard for infant rice cereal.”

That’s the real scandal here: the regulators charged with protecting our health fail to require appropriate testing or set any safety standards, yet somehow the problem is being characterized as “manufacturers knowingly sold” toxic products (see screenshot above). Uh missing the point…much?

Lesson 2: a better media environment is key

Headlines aren’t the only issues in the coverage, and I say this after reading a lot of news articles about the same report.

What are some context that might have been helpful here? I think there are at least 4.

  • In terms of scale, food isn’t a major source of heavy metals, compared to other things such as lead pipes or lead paint.
  • This is not a baby food problem. Baby food is made from crops, therefore all food made from crops can contain heavy metals. The report does raise the possibility that some ingredients added by the manufacturers such as vitamins and minerals contain heavy metals, but again, manufacturers fortify adult food as well.
  • This is not a commercial food problem. Heavy metals are found in food products because of environmental pollution and agricultural practices (such as the use of pesticides and fertilizers), and because some of these elements naturally occur in nature. Plants absorb these elements from air, water, and soil as they grow, which is why the organic products included in the report contain heavy metals as well and why homemade baby food may not make a big difference either. (Some articles highlighted the finding about organic brands but do not explain why.)
  • “So what?” What should you make of this news? Some practical information might include: this news doesn’t warrant a panic response, you can reduce exposure by feeding your child a varied diet, avoiding juice until 2 (which contains higher levels), and limiting rice and rice-based products (which tend to contain higher amounts of arsenic). Again, these pieces of advice should be given within the context that in any case – we are talking about trace amounts here.

I didn’t come across any article from a major news outlet that provided all these contexts (which – in my opinion – would have been helpful and important for a reader), though this NYTimes piece was one of the best ones I read. (On the other end of the spectrum, this CBS News article was so lazy that it basically copied paragraphs from the report’s executive summary.)

These kinds of background information aren’t difficult to find (I found a lot in half of an hour through just Googling), nor do they require a lot of expertise or words to describe. In an age where quick social media soundbites, uninformed influencers, and deliberate disinformation already make our information environment so confusing to navigate, we need responsible news coverage that puts more emphasis on the 5th W in journalism (who, what, when, where, and why). Because telling people “high levels of heavy metals are found in baby food” without explaining why they are there and why you should (or should not) be concerned just isn’t all that helpful.

Lesson 3: media literacy and basic science education are so critical

As is often the case, a lot of people freaked out over this news. “What happens if mothers already exposed their toddlers to these foods when they were babies? Should there still be a concern or should they work on helping their kiddos detox?” “Well I guess it’s too late for those of us with 2 year olds. But what in the world brand of food are you supposed to buy?” “I try so hard to watch what I feed my [little one] but then I feel like I’m failing her all the time!” are comments I copied just off one influencer’s Instagram post about this news.

These comments don’t just illustrate my point above (Context matters! Scale matters! You are not a failing parent poisoning your kids just because you fed them jarred baby food!), but also demonstrate that so many people lack a basic level of scientific literacy. Like, “detox your kiddos” is just…not a thing! To that end, I’m super excited to see more and more evidence-based science communicators countering the misinformation so rampant on social media. See a few examples here, here, and here. @kids.eat.in.color also wrote a lengthier article that provides a broad overview on heavy metals in baby food, which was terrific.

An example of what good science communication might look like. This is a screenshot; read the whole thread here.

Some of these communicators also helpfully pointed out a few caveats with the report, such as how the data used in study were from 2017 and 2018 (including products that are no longer on the shelf today), how FDA has already made changes since the study period, and why high levels don’t necessarily equal “toxic” levels.

Which brings me to my last point.

Lesson 4: we are still missing the big picture

Nobody should have to squint through a 60 page report just to see the fine print that the data are from 2017. Because as long as the study isn’t from 30 years ago, it’s still relevant. Nobody should have to keep track of every little thing the FDA is doing just to make sure our food supply is safe. Because that is literally the FDA’s job. Nobody should have to earn a degree in toxicology so they can decipher what exact levels of heavy metals in their kids’ food make them dangerous. Because while basic science education is important for everyone, it’s just that – basic – and we can’t possibly expect everyone to dig deep into every news item they encounter.

You see, from the science writers that teach us how to discern whether something is truly toxic, the congressional report that includes a recommendation on “parental vigilance”, to news articles that share tips on “feeding your baby safely”, here is the big picture we are still missing: this. is. not. an. individual. problem. This is not a parenting problem. This is not an education problem. The root cause of this issue – heavy metals in food – is an environmental problem!

Think about this. Aside from naturally occurring sources: why is there arsenic in rice? (because rice is grown in flooded paddies, which release inorganic arsenic normally locked up in soil minerals, particularly in regions that have heavily relied on arsenic-based pesticides.) Why is there cadmium in sweet potatoes? (because cadmium is a by-product of mining, smelting, and other industrial activities.) And how the hell did so much mercury get in our food? (because we burn fossil fuels!)

Further, how long will these heavy metals known to be harmful to human health persist in the environment? Can they be removed from our food and water supply? Are we working on that? Are the industrial and agricultural activities that led to these high levels of heavy metals being our environment in the first place allowed to continue? Why? How are these NOT the most pressing questions that the public asks, when a news article inevitably comes out every few months about toxins, carcinogens, and other hazardous substances?

And so, back to the question I raised earlier: “toxic metals in baby food – should you be concerned?” I say yes, absolutely yes. Because…we’ve got loads of lingering heavy metals poisoning our water and soil, underfunded regulators too slow to respond, and an information environment still failing to connect the dots between environmental health and public health in the year 2021 – how could you not be concerned?