When the FDA asks the wrong question

May 15, 2016
Photo of a family

What happens when you ask the wrong question? You get the wrong answer. And that’s exactly what the FDA is planning to do about arsenic in rice cereals for infants.

A poison like arsenic in baby food? Isn’t that crazy? Isn’t that illegal? It is crazy, but it’s not illegal. And that’s the problem. How did this happen?

Before we understood what we understand now about how chemicals can harm human health and development, arsenic was used as a pesticide in cotton fields. Some of those old cotton fields are now used to grow rice. And rice is particularly good at absorbing arsenic pollution from fields, taking up to 10 times more of it than other grains. Although arsenic contaminates a wide range of foods and water sources, infant rice cereal is the top source of arsenic exposure for children under the age of 2.

So it’s good news that on April 1, after years of analysis and the prodding of Consumers Reports, FDA proposed a first-ever "action level" for arsenic in infant rice cereal. But the FDA is basing the “action level” on their answer to the question of how much arsenic raises the risk of cancer. That’s the wrong question. The right question for infant foods and the diets of pregnant women needs to be, “What should the arsenic limit be to protect an infant's developing brain?” Because FDA is proposing a limit to protect against cancer in adults, the limit will be way too high to protect babies. FDA’s proposed new action level wouldn't do enough to protect infants from continuing, high exposures to a toxin that harms brain development and lowers IQ.

Any arsenic is too much arsenic for a baby’s brain. That’s why Healthy Babies Bright Futures is urging FDA to lower the “action levels’ for arsenic in infant rice cereal. You can join the effort for stronger protections by clicking here. And while we wait for FDA to do the right thing to protect our nation’s babies, we can do what we need to do to protect ourselves. The Healthy Babies Bright Futures Safer Product Guide can help you find safer alternatives to products with arsenic for your baby and for yourself, especially if you thinking about becoming pregnant or are pregnant now.