FDA Urges Congress to Establish National Food Lead Testing Requirements

The agency is working to reduce children's exposure to lead and other heavy metals, according to testimony provided by FDA Administrator Califf

Amid continuing concerns about toxic heavy metals in baby food, apple sauce pouches and other widely distributed food products, the head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) went before Congress earlier this month to request new legislation that establishes lead testing requirements, as part of a continuing effort to protect young children and babies from lead poisoning and other injuries.

FDA Commissioner Robert Califf submitted testimony (PDF) to the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Accountability on April 11, calling for the legislature to give the agency more power to test food products to make sure they do not have excessive lead levels.

The request comes in the wake of a Wanabana applesauce pouch recall issued in October, after the pouches were found to contain high levels of lead due to contaminated cinnamon. The recalled cinnamon applesauce pouches have now been linked to at least 93 confirmed lead poisoning illnesses, 269 probable cases and 37 suspected cases identified in 43 different states.

Califf’s testimony also came amid a growing number of toxic baby food lawsuits being pursued by parents of children diagnosed with autism or ADHD after exposure to lead and other heavy metals that have been pervasive in products sold by Gerber, Beech-Nut, Nurture, Campbell and other manufacturers in recent years. The same day the testimony was presented, the U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation (JPML) issued an order establishing a a baby food toxic metal multidistrict litigation (MDL) to coordinate discovery in claims filed throughout the federal court system.

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“FDA’s Closer to Zero initiative sets forth the Agency’s approach to reducing exposure to lead, arsenic, cadmium, and mercury in foods commonly eaten by babies and young children to the lowest possible levels,” Califf’s testimony states. “We have prioritized babies and young children given their vulnerability to the harmful effects of these contaminants.”

During questioning from the committee, Califf indicated that there is no federal requirement allowing the FDA to test for lead in foods, and no limits have been set on heavy metal food levels beyond a few specific instances, such as lead limits on candy products and juice.

Califf told the committee that the agency cannot do any such testing or set lead level limits without congressional action.

The testimony also indicated the FDA needs congressional help in preparing for public health emergencies, improving life expectancy, enforcing food safety and nutrition, combatting the overdose crisis, regulating cannabis and hemp products and other challenges.

“The essential work of the Agency continues in thousands of ways that Americans and the world count on every day. This work is accomplished thanks to the dedication and perseverance of FDA staff,” Califf testified. “We look forward to continuing to work with Congress on the Agency’s mission, including by strengthening FDA’s authorities in the areas of supply chain resiliency, hemp-derived products, infant formula, and more.”

Lead Poisoning Risks

Lead is a toxic heavy metal that can cause permanent brain damage, nervous system injuries, cognitive impairment, physical disabilities, or other long-term health consequences. Children are particularly vulnerable to lead exposure, as they are still developing and do not usually show exposure signs or symptoms.

While short-term exposure can cause headaches, abdominal pain, headaches, vomiting, or other minor symptoms, longer exposure may result in lead poisoning, leading to more severe symptoms, including lethargy, muscular weakness, confusion, or tremors.

According to pediatricians, there is no safe lead exposure level for children, and any exposure may increase the risk of developing serious or permanent injuries, or even death.

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