By Will Feuer

Key Points:

  • Democrats are calling on the FDA to regulate metal toxins in baby foods.
  • A congressional investigation last month found the presence of toxic metals at high levels in many baby foods.
  • Four Democrats have submitted draft legislation to the FDA for a technical review but want the agency to take regulatory action quickly.

Top Democrats are pushing the FDA to regulate toxic metals in baby food after a congressional investigation discovered the presence of metals like arsenic, lead and cadmium at levels far higher than those allowed in bottled water and other products.

Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., as well as Reps. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., and Tony Cardenas, D-Calif., told CNBC that they are urging the regulatory agency to place limits on toxic heavy metal content in baby food.

The Food and Drug Administration does not currently set limits on heavy metals for baby foods, specifically, except for arsenic in rice cereal. The agency does regulate other toxins in consumer products such as lead, arsenic and cadmium in bottled water.

The four Democrats said Thursday they have drafted legislation that would strengthen regulations for baby food safety and have sent it to FDA staff for technical review. But the lawmakers want the FDA to use their existing regulatory authority to take immediate action.

“Through our legislation and FDA regulatory action, we will ensure that the baby foods that reach the market are safe and that our children are safe,” Krishnamoorthi said in a statement. “I’m proud to partner with my colleagues along with the FDA, stakeholders, and health experts across the country in developing comprehensive reforms.”

An FDA spokeswoman said the agency takes the exposure of toxic metals in foods “extremely seriously” and that the agency is reviewing the findings of the congressional investigation. She added that the “FDA does not comment on whether it has received requests for technical assistance regarding legislation, but we would look forward to working with Congress on this issue.”

A subcommittee of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform chaired by Krishnamoorthi released the findings of its 15-month investigation in February. It used data from four companies — Nurture, Hain Celestial Group, Beech-Nut Nutrition and Gerber, a unit of Nestle — that responded to the subcommittee’s requests for information about testing policies and test results regarding their products.

The investigation revealed that “baby food companies were not looking out for parents and young kids the way that we all expected — instead, they were knowingly selling us tainted products,” Krishnamoorthi said.

Hain said at the time that the investigation did “not reflect our current practices,” adding that the company’s internal standards “meet or exceed the current federal guidelines.”

Gemma Hart, a spokeswoman for Nurture, told The New York Times at the time that their products were safe and that the metals were present only in “trace amounts.” Beech-Nut said Thursday that the company “is committed to continually refining its internal standards and testing processes as technology and knowledge develops.” Dana Stambaugh, a spokeswoman for Gerber, said the company takes steps to minimize metals in its products.

Three other companies that sell baby food — Walmart, Sprout Organic Foods and Campbell Soup — did not provide all of the requested information. At the time of the investigation’s release, Campbell said its products were safe and cited the lack of FDA standards for heavy metals in baby food.

A Walmart representative told Reuters at the time that it requires private label product suppliers to follow its own specifications, “which for baby and toddler food means the levels must meet or fall below the limits established by the FDA.”

Sprout did not immediately respond to CNBC’s request for comment.

“Like parents all across America, I was horrified to learn that trusted baby food brands knowingly sell products containing high levels of toxic lead, arsenic, mercury, and cadmium,” Rep. Cardenas said Thursday. “I urge the FDA to use its existing authorities to take immediate regulatory action.

The investigation acknowledged that heavy metals do occur naturally in some grains and vegetables, but added that the amounts can be increased when manufacturers add other tainted ingredients to baby food. The report said companies rarely test their products for contaminants before sending them to stores.

“It’s unacceptable that despite parents’ best efforts to keep their children safe, some leading baby food manufacturers have put products on the market that expose children to dangerous toxins,” Klobuchar said in a statement. “This legislation will protect children and ensure they get a healthy start by holding manufacturers accountable for removing toxins out of infant and toddler foods.”