'Not a safety concern:' Health Canada responds to U.S. study that found toxic metals in baby food
A child in a highchair is shown in this file photo. (Patrick Breig / shutterstock.com)
TORONTO --- Health Canada has said that levels of toxic heavy metals found in baby food “do not pose a safety concern” after a U.S. investigation found nearly all infant foods tested contain lead.
Tests of 168 baby products from major manufacturers in the U.S. found 95 per cent contained lead, 73 per cent contained arsenic, 75 per cent contained cadmium and 32 per cent contained mercury.
A quarter of the foods contained all four heavy metals.
Health Canada confirmed that “the levels of metals…being reported are likely applicable to infant foods sold in Canada, as many of the same products are available in Canada.”
“The available monitoring data indicate that levels of cadmium, lead, total mercury and perchlorate in foods sold in Canada, including those consumed by infants, do not pose a safety concern,” the department told CTVNews.ca in an emailed statement.
Foods with the highest risk for neurotoxic harm were rice-based products, sweet potatoes and fruit juices, the analysis found.
The tests and analysis were commissioned by Healthy Babies Bright Futures, which calls itself an alliance of scientists, nonprofit organizations and donors trying to reduce exposures to neurotoxic chemicals during the first months of life, according to CNN. The report was released Oct.17.
“Health Canada’s view, like that of other international authorities, is that concentrations of certain metals, such as arsenic and lead, in foods should be as low as possible,” the department said.
“The department is working to ensure this. If Health Canada identifies a potential health concern, the Government of Canada will take immediate and appropriate action to protect the health and safety of all Canadians, including infants and young children.”
The report said even trace amounts of these contaminants can “alter the developing brain and erode a child's IQ. The impacts add up with each meal or snack a baby eats.”
Rice-based foods, such as puffed rice snacks and rice cereal, topped the list of most toxic foods for babies. Because rice is grown in water, it is especially good at absorbing arsenic and, according to the Food and Drug Administration, has the highest concentration of any food.
“Unfortunately, the findings from this thorough study were to be expected,” Prof. Andy Meharg from Queen’s University Belfast told CTVNews.ca.
“The findings reinforce three things. We should not be giving infants rice products because of rice’s arsenic and cadmium content, baby food needs to be routinely screened to check for toxins as they may arise from unexpected sources and standards need to be set at stricter levels for infants than for the general populace.”
Urgent action is needed by major baby food companies and the FDA, the report said. It also suggested safer alternatives to foods with a higher risk for heavy metal exposure.
"These popular baby foods are not only high in inorganic arsenic, the most toxic form of arsenic, but also are nearly always contaminated with all four toxic metals," the report said.
If parents choose to cook rice for their toddler, Healthy Babies recommends cooking it in extra water and pouring it off before eating. That will cut arsenic levels by 60 per cent, the report said, based on FDA studies.
"For the lowest levels, buy basmati rice grown in California, India, and Pakistan. White rice has less arsenic than brown rice," the report said.
Teething biscuits can also contain arsenic, lead and cadmium, the report said. Instead, it suggests soothing teething pain with frozen bananas or a peeled and chilled cucumber.
Tap water is also preferable over juice because it contains 63 per cent less heavy metals, the report said.
Health Canada said it was working with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to gather more information on arsenic in rice-containing foods for babies.
“The report advocates a 1 ppb (parts per billion) limit for metals in infant foods,” Health Canada said.
“This is more conservative than limits that have been established by food standard setting bodies and regulatory authorities. For example, both the European Union and the Codex Alimentarius Commission (Codex) have established a maximum level of 10 ppb of lead in infant formula.
“The Department is systematically working to lower existing maximum levels and to establish new ones, as necessary, for arsenic and lead in foods sold in Canada.”
In the U.S., the Senate's top Democrat Chuck Schumer has called on the FDA to take more action to regulate the baby food industry.
The New York senator told The Associated Press that consumers "rightfully expect those foods to be undeniably safe, appropriately regulated and nutritiously sustaining."
He says federal regulators should examine the study and release a public statement of their findings.
---- With files from CNN and The Associated Press