The changes “will result in long-term, meaningful and sustainable reductions in the exposure to this contaminant from foods,” said Dr. Robert M. Califf, the commissioner of the F.D.A. The guideline would allow the agency to identify foods as “adulterated” if they contained levels beyond the limits, and to then seek a recall, seize products or recommend a criminal prosecution.
The agency estimated that the proposed levels could reduce the dietary exposure to lead for some young children by about 25 percent. According to the F.D.A., low levels of lead exposure in children can lead to “learning disabilities, behavior difficulties and lowered I.Q.” as well as immunological and cardiovascular effects.
In 2020, the F.D.A. set limits for inorganic arsenic in rice cereal for infants and in April of last year, it proposed maximum levels for lead in juice.
In comments submitted on the broader F.D.A. plan, Gerber said that reducing toxins in the produce and grains in infant food was challenging because much of them are absorbed from the soil as plants grow. “Actions that result in removing baby foods from the diet, whether intentional or not, do not change exposure if these foods are replaced with other sources of the same fruits, vegetables and grains that are prone to having heavy metals,” the company wrote in a letter dated December 2021.
Gerber, Walmart and Hain Celestial, which produces Earth’s Best Organic foods, did not respond to requests for comment on the proposal. Beech-Nut Nutrition Company said in a statement that it was reviewing the guidance and would work with the F.D.A. on “the establishment of science-based regulatory” limits for “naturally occurring heavy metals.”
Attorneys general from New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Michigan and other states had weighed in on the overall plan, urging the F.D.A. to post the results of its tests for multiple metals in baby food on its website.
Lead is ubiquitous in the environment from decades of unregulated use in gasoline for cars, farm machinery, aircraft and paint, said Tracey Woodruff, a scientist at the University of California, San Francisco, who studies exposure to toxins.