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Murray Presses FDA to Remove Harmful Substances From Baby Food

April 14, 2022 by Alexa Hornbeck
Baby food jar by Katie Mollon via Flickr

WASHINGTON — Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, issued a letter this week to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Robert Califf, requesting the FDA step up efforts to ensure the food babies and children eat is safe.

“It’s clear we need solutions to the systemic issues and delays laid bare in recent reporting, so I’m pushing hard for specific answers from FDA leadership on how they will fix this,” said Murray, in an email to The Well News.

The letter from Murray includes recent media reporting that reveals harmful FDA delays and inaction on contaminated infant formula and heavy metals in baby food, and pathogens in produce, indicating long-standing issues and the need for FDA reforms.

“There’s no question long-standing delays and dysfunction in the FDA’s food safety division have left families’ health and safety in danger — and recent reporting has put these failures front and center,” said Murray. 

Murray was already in contact with Abbott Nutrition and the FDA this year regarding bacterial contamination of Abbott’s infant formula, which was associated with multiple hospitalizations and deaths. 

The FDA first received a report of the issues with Abbott’s infant formula in September 2021, but according to Murray, the FDA did not initiate an inspection of the manufacturing plant until January and no recall was made until February. 

Murray had previously demanded answers from Abbott over its contaminated infant formula noting after the FDA released the report on the matter. 

In her letter to Califf, Murray poses four questions and requests answers no later than April 25.

Her questions pertain to the FDA’s current timeliness and rigor of regulatory and enforcement activities, whether the FDA has addressed the root causes in the delay of responding to toxic substances in baby food, whether organizational changes in 2020 impacted food safety efforts, and a breakdown from the FDA on the specifics on food and food packing samples over the past decade. 

“I’m going to keep doing everything I can to make sure the FDA protects our health and safety — including by pushing to ensure the agency has the resources it needs in the next government funding package,” said Murray.

The FDA’s delay in the Abbott recall isn’t the first time that the ball has been dropped on ensuring safety of food for babies and children. 

In November 2019, the House Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy requested internal documents and test results from seven of the largest manufacturers of baby food in the U.S., and only four of the companies responded. 

The documents and test results obtained by the subcommittee showed that commercial baby foods are tainted with toxic heavy metals which cause permanent decreases in IQ, diminished future economic productivity, and increased risk of future criminal and antisocial behavior in children. 

In a separate study from 2019, the Healthy Babies Bright Futures, an alliance of scientists, non-profits, and donors, found that 95% of tested baby foods contain toxic chemicals that lower babies’ IQ.

The report examines 168 baby foods from U.S. manufacturers and finds that 95% contained lead, 73% contained arsenic, 75% contained cadmium, and 32% contained mercury. 

A quarter of the baby foods included in the report contained all of the heavy metals.

Rice dishes, like infant rice cereal, were found to have the highest levels of metal concern and impact on babies’ IQ. 

“To utilize our resources, we focus on where we can have the greatest public health impact. In that case, we worked on inorganic arsenic instant rice cereal because it was the most important source of exposure for babies and young children,” said Susan Mayne, director of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition at the FDA, in response to a question posed by The Well News.

Mayne said that the FDA has reduced infant exposure to inorganic arsenic rice cereal by 29% over a six year time frame.

“We need to target categories of food, and that’s what we are doing with Closer to Zero,” said Mayne.

In February 2021, the FDA responded to the congressional report about levels of toxic elements in baby foods, and by March announced new actions they would take to further reduce those numbers.

The FDA held its first public meeting to discuss the Closer to Zero: Action Plan for Baby Foods initiative in October, which identifies key steps the agency will take in the next three years, and beyond, to reduce exposure to toxic elements from foods eaten by babies and young children to as low as possible.

This April, the FDA released its newest version of the Closer to Zero action plan, which includes developing guidance documents for industry.

Mayne said that right now, the FDA is developing a guidance document for lead for a variety of different juices, which is in the final stages of clearance.

Currently, the FDA has a budget that exceeds $1.1 billion per year.

According to Mayne, the most recent presidential FY23 budget request included $5.1 million to help reduce exposure to toxic foods in babies and children.

“These funds will help us expand our capacity to better manage the infant formula review workload. As we have seen from our close monitoring of the supply chain, considering the recent infant formula recall, it is important that we are fully staffed with experts on infant formula to be able to do all we can to expeditiously complete reviews of new infant formula submissions,” said Mayne.

Mayne said with new funding the FDA has expanded its infant formula team from nine to 13 full-time employees. 

“It’s challenging to do everything we are expected to do as we have very few staff in these areas. With more resources and support, we can do more, with more,” concluded Mayne.

Alexa can be reached at alexa@thewellnews.com 

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