The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has created draft guidance designed to restrict the amount of lead contamination in food made for infants and toddlers. The Jan. 24 announcement states that this guidance is part of an FDA program “closer to zero” which seeks to continually reduce exposure to heavy metals including arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury to the lowest levels possible while maintaining access to healthy foods.

The Closer to Zero program is an initiative that seeks to reduce the amount of environmental contamination that occurs in foods intended for infants and young children. Heavy metals occur naturally in the Earth’s crust and from human contamination, leading to absorption via food products. The Closer to Zero project mandates continually lower levels of tolerance for these metals in order to create the safest, healthiest foods possible.

Closer to Zero pursues research goals by developing new or improved testing methods to find contaminants, conducting surveys to identify approximate consumption levels of different foods, identifying contaminant levels in food products, and seeking to understand how nutrients can counteract the adverse effects of contaminants. Closer to Zero also has regulatory goals that establish action levels, increase compliance, exercise enforcement activities, and monitor levels over time.

The draft guidance chiefly targets levels of lead in processed foods, including food packaged in jars, pouches, tubs and boxes intended for babies and young children less than two years old. The updated levels would restrict lead to: 

  • 10 parts per billion for fruits, vegetables (excluding single-ingredient root vegetables), mixtures (including grain and meat-based mixtures), yogurts, custards/puddings and single-ingredient meats
  • 20 parts per billion for root vegetables (single ingredient)
  • 20 parts per billion for dry cereals

According to the FDA, the differing food standards are designed to account for variances in consumption levels of different food products and how much lead the food types absorb from the environment.

FDA Commissioner Robert M. Califf, M.D. stated, “For more than 30 years, the FDA has been working to reduce exposure to lead, and other environmental contaminants, from foods. This work has resulted in a dramatic decline in lead exposure from foods since the mid-1980s. The proposed action levels announced today, along with our continued work with our state and federal partners, and with industry and growers to identify mitigation strategies, will result in long-term, meaningful and sustainable reductions in the exposure to this contaminant from foods.” Commissioner Califf added that the action level adjustments could reduce lead consumption by as much as 27%.