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Baby food manufacturers face scrutiny over heavy metals found in products

Many of the country’s best-known baby food brands contain significant levels of toxic heavy metals. While they may naturally occur in the environment, a new congressional investigation has found that they can cause serious and often irreversible damage to infant brain development.

These heavy metals — including arsenic, lead, cadmium and mercury — have been declared dangerous to human health at high levels, particularly to babies and children by the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) and the World Health Organization (WHO). But a fact too often overlooked is that these metals are already present in the environment and in some cases may be naturally occurring. As a result, they cannot be entirely avoided. Still, food companies are finding themselves forced to respond to consumer fears, Congressional oversight and regulatory scrutiny even though they are not entirely or exclusively at fault.

The House Oversight Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy launched its investigation after consumer groups alleged that the baby foods, including organic brands, contain high levels of these heavy metals. Unsurprisingly, class action lawsuits against the food companies are now underway.

The FDA — which has no current standards for heavy metals in baby food — is on the record saying: “Toxic elements, such as arsenic and lead, are present in the environment and may enter the food supply through soil, water or air. Because these elements occur in the environment, currently they cannot be completely avoided in the fruits, vegetables, or grains that are the basis for baby foods, juices, and infant cereals ….” But that fact – lost in the media frenzy over the subcommittee’s findings – provides no cover for companies facing damaging headlines and expensive lawsuits.

In National Law Review, Jonathon A. Fligg and L. Christine Lawson, partners at Womble Bond Dickinson LLP, shared their considerations for baby food manufacturers. The attorneys warn that “until the FDA sets national standards, manufacturers need to consider whether to set their own standards, how to scientifically defend any standards they may set, and how and when to test their products.

How manufacturers can stay ahead of the curve and maintain consumer trust

It’s essential that manufacturers — especially those that market their products as high-quality — understand their heightened responsibilities to set and maintain standards before the government is forced to do so. Now that the FDA’s hand has been forced, there’s no doubt that more publicity and tight standards are on the way. Worse, the FDA has already recommended that concerned parents switch to preparing their own unprocessed fruits and vegetables to feed infants.

As a first step, manufacturers need to comply with FDA guidelines already in place and voluntarily follow recommendations outlined in the subcommittee’s report. This includes voluntarily testing ingredients and final products, phasing out toxins, stipulating compliance with FDA guidelines and labeling products correctly.

Complying with rules not yet set will demonstrate dedication to protecting consumers. Being transparent and willing to cooperate will not only place the company ahead of others but prepare it for future regulation, help avoid litigation and restore trust between consumers and manufacturers.

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