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Closer to Zero: Detecting Heavy Metals in Baby Foods

The US Food and Drug Administration announced that it is pursuing a plan to address high levels of heavy metals in baby foods. Although the agency has set maximum allowable levels of metals like lead in bottled water, it has not regulated levels of metals in baby and toddler foods (with the exception of arsenic in rice cereal). The plan is called “Closer to Zero”. 

What types of heavy metals are found in baby food?

The heavy metals of concern include lead, arsenic, cadmium and mercury. It is important to know that these elements occur in our air, water and soil, so there are limits to how low these levels can be. Heavy metals can leach into fruits and vegetables from soil or water contaminated by pesticides, fertilizers and other sources. They can also be introduced to baby foods as additives and mineral or vitamin mixes. The FDA’s goal is to reduce the levels of arsenic, lead, cadmium and mercury in baby and toddler foods to the greatest extent possible.  

Why are heavy metals in baby food a concern?

Protecting babies and young children is among the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s highest priorities. Although the FDA’s testing shows that children are not at an immediate health risk from exposure to toxic elements at the levels found in foods, reducing levels of toxic elements in these foods over time is an important goal.  

Research shows exposure to even small amounts of heavy metals at an early age may increase the risk of several health problems, including lower IQ and behavior problems. Research has also linked heavy metal exposure to autism and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder. The FDA has a limit of 100 parts per billion (ppb) of inorganic arsenic in baby rice cereals, but not for other baby foods, nor any limits for other heavy metals in foods made for young children. 

 

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The “Closer to Zero” plan from the US Food & Drug Administration, which includes research and evaluation of changes in dietary exposures to toxic elements, will draft maximum levels of lead in baby and toddler food by April 2022

 

What is included in the US FDA Closer to Zero Plan?

The Closer to Zero plan includes research and evaluation of changes in dietary exposures to toxic elements, setting action levels (recommended limits of toxic elements in foods that can be achieved by industry and progressively lowered as appropriate), encouraging adoption of best practices by industry, and monitoring progress. 

The Closer to Zero action plan will occur in three phases: 

  1. Evaluate the scientific basis for action levels. The cycle of continual improvement starts with the FDA evaluating existing data from routine testing of the food supply, research and data on chemical analytical methods, toxicological assays, exposure and risk assessments, and other relevant scientific information. Through a process that may include advisory committees, public workshops, and consultation with scientific experts, federal agency partners, and other stakeholders, the agency will establish interim reference levels (IRLs) for certain toxic elements as appropriate. An IRL is a measure of exposure from food that the FDA may use to determine if the amount of exposure to an individual element across foods could result in a specific health impact.  
  1. Propose action levels. The IRLs may be among the key factors that inform the development of the FDA’s proposed action levels for certain toxic elements in categories of baby foods (e.g., cereals, infant formula, pureed fruits and vegetables, etc.) and other foods commonly eaten by babies and young children.  
  1. Consult with stakeholders on proposed action levels, including the achievability and feasibility of action levels. For each toxic element—for every identified category of food—the FDA will gather data and other information through a process of consultation that could include workshops, scientific meetings, and collaboration with federal partners to assess, among other things, the achievability and feasibility of the proposed action levels and the timeframes for reaching them.  
  1. Finalize action levels. The FDA will use the information gathered from stakeholders, updated scientific research, and routine monitoring data to make any needed adjustments and finalize action levels. 

What is the timing of the Closer to Zero plan?

The FDA intends to draft maximum levels of lead in baby and toddler food by April 2022, and for arsenic by April 2024. The FDA has not announced dates for draft rules for cadmium and mercury, although the agency intends to gather and examine data. A final ruling on lead levels will be issued by April 2024, with a final arsenic level ruling after that. 

What are some analytical techniques that can be used to measure heavy metals in food?

Elemental analysis of food guarantees that contaminants are monitored and that foreign particles within the food matrix are detected. Other quality control applications include the inspection of mineral supplements and other vital mineral elements. ICP-MS instruments are suitable for the routine, multi-element screening of trace level elements and high concentration mineral elements in foods, ensuring quality control of elemental nutrients as well as contaminants. 

Agilent 7800 ICP-MS
Agilent 7800 ICP-MS instrument’s sensitivity and analytical dynamic range enables major mineral elements (Na, K, Ca, and Mg) to be determined in the same analytical run as trace elements including Cr, As, Cd, Pb, and Hg.

What types of food safety analysis can ICP-MS be used for?

Since contaminant elements are only likely to be present in food samples at low concentrations, an analytical technique that can achieve low limits of detection is needed for the application. ICP-MS is a fast, multi-element analysis technique with the necessary sensitivity, and dynamic range to measure nutrient and contaminant elements in fortified food products. With recent improvements in its usability and robustness, ICP-MS is increasingly used for the high throughput, routine analysis of foods. The Agilent 7800 ICP-MS offers superior detection limits, wider dynamic range and greater flexibility.

What are examples of food testing application using ICP-MS?

The 7800 ICP-MS system is an ideal instrument for:

  • Quantifying toxic trace elements in foodstuffs
  • Arsenic speciation in rice and fruit juice
  • Measuring trace elements in malt spirit beverages and edible oils
  • Characterizing the nanoparticle content of foods and food packaging

Can you use XRF for food safety analysis?

XRF is a powerful technique that provides rapid and reliable raw material identification. An XRF can not only identify a material (e.g., NaCl vs. KCl) but also the determine its purity (e.g., traces of toxic metals). The S2 PUMA Series 2, an energy dispersive XRF (EDXRF) spectrometer comes with a powerful and versatile standardless solution, SMART-QUANT FP, enabling fast qualitative and quantitative screening of raw materials. The 22-postion XY Autochanger allows to load large batches and individual priority samples at any time, enabling high throughput and flexibility. 

 

Bruker S2 PUMA EDXRF
The Bruker S2 PUMA benchtop EDXRF packs a ton of analytical power and flexibility into a benchtop instrument.

What kind of food safety applications are suitable for XRF?

  • Ensure heavy metals, like Arsenic (As), Cadmium (Cd), or Lead (Pb) are kept well below the strictly regulated limits. 
  • Know whether the iron content in your rice or wheat grains comes from fortification or hazardous metal parts during production (foreign body identification). 
  • Know if the nutritional additives, like Magnesium (Mg)Calcium (Ca)or Zinc (Zn) are within the desired thresholds. 

Conclusion & Additional Information:

Accurately quantifying heavy metals is not only vital to food safety and consumer health, but can also be used to deter fraudulent labeling of a food’s origin since the metal content can be used to identify provenance. Analytical testing of these trace metals can be challenging since the measurement of total metals is sometimes not sufficient, and it may be necessary to differentiate between organic and inorganic species. 

Since contaminant elements are only likely to be present in food samples at low concentrations, the Agilent 7800 ICP-MS instrument is an ideal solution to achieve the low detection limits needed for heavy metals analysis in food. ICP-MS is a fast, multi-element analysis technique with the necessary sensitivity, and dynamic range to measure nutrient and contaminant elements in fortified food products. The S2 PUMA Series 2 Benchtop EDXRF is an ideal instrument for a variety of quality control and assurance tasks in food manufacturing and research.

Quantum Analytics is an authorized distributor of the Agilent 7800 ICP-MS and the Bruker S2 PUMA EDXRF instruments in the United States. To discuss your application, or if you are interested in financing your instrument, please contact us to get started. 

 

Additional resources related to heavy metals testing in food using elemental analysis:

 

 

References: 

  1. The Washington Post, “FDA to urge limits on heavy metals in baby foods, starting with arsenic and lead”, Laura Reiley, April 12, 2021. https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2021/04/12/fda-toxic-baby-food/  
  2. Manufacturing Business Technology, “FDA’s Launching ‘Closer to Zero’ Plan to Remove Metals in Baby Food,” US Food & Drug Administration, April 12, 2021. https://www.mbtmag.com/home/news/21378125/fdas-launching-closer-to-zero-plan-to-remove-metals-in-baby-food  
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