Heavy metals in food

Heavy metals are widely present in the environment and can get into our food. While environmental contamination (e.g. from soil and water) likely is the main source, they could also enter food through processing.

EDF works to reduce exposure to lead, arsenic, and cadmium as they are the heavy metals most commonly found in food and they have also been identified by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as priorities for reduction due to their impact on children’s neurodevelopment. We have a particular focus on lead as part of our broader strategy to protect children from all sources of lead exposure.

Using FDA data, EDF has conducted several analyses showing progress in reducing heavy metal levels in foods and highlighting areas for improvement. Our 2017 report, revealed that lead was frequently detected in certain children’s foods, and follow-up blogs have indicated that overall rates of detectable lead have declined, though the rates remain high for specific types of food. Additional studies from FDA, Consumer Reports and Healthy Babies Bright Futures have continued to draw attention to the problem of heavy metals in food.

Why heavy metals are a concern

Heavy metals are potent neurotoxicants that can impair children’s normal brain development. While the levels in any one food may be low, the cumulative effect of dietary heavy metals can be significant.

Below are key health concerns associated with exposure:

  • Lead: Impaired brain development and lower IQs in children, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.
  • Inorganic arsenic: Impaired cognitive development in children, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer.
  • Cadmium: Kidney disease, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. A better understanding is needed of the neurological impacts of cadmium exposure.

Recommendations

Fortunately, there’s progress happening on multiple fronts on this issue.

EDF is a founding member of the Baby Food Council, a broad-based group of leading companies and other organizations, that has committed to reduce heavy metal levels in infant and toddler food to as low as reasonable achievable using best supply chain management practices. The Council strives to identify foods that contribute most to exposure and determine methods to drive levels down.

FDA has also taken important steps, including by establishing a Toxic Elements Working Group specifically to work towards solutions to limit lead, arsenic, cadmium, and mercury in food, cosmetics, and dietary supplements. As part of the effort, the agency has lowered the maximum daily intake of lead for children.

Due to the complexity of tackling this issue, renewed action and ongoing vigilance is needed by all stakeholders to work towards solutions to reducing heavy metal levels in food.