Metals - such as arsenic, lead, cadmium, mercury and others - are found in certain foods. At high levels, these metals can be toxic, but eliminating them entirely from our food supply is not always possible because these metals are found in the air, water and soil and then taken up by plants as they grow. The FDA actively monitors the levels of these metals in the food supply. We are taking a systematic approach to reduce the risks posed by these metals especially to vulnerable populations such as infants and children, who are most susceptible to some of the harmful neurological and developmental effects.
Understanding the risk these metals pose in our food supply is complicated by the fact that no single food source accounts for most people’s exposure to metals in foods. People’s exposure to these metals comes from many different foods containing low levels of these metals. Combining all of the foods we eat, these low levels can sometimes add up to a level of concern.
The agency’s Toxic Elements Working Group aims to reduce exposure to toxic elements in food, cosmetics and dietary supplements. The group is made up of senior leaders and risk managers in the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN) with experience in microbiology, toxicology, chemistry, medicine, epidemiology, policy and law. Working with scientists across the Center, the group is tackling the issues presented by metals using the following approach:
- Prioritizing metals by toxicity and prevalence – The group is looking at the presence of metals in all products CFSAN regulates and identifying the areas where the FDA can have the greatest impact on reducing exposures. The workgroup is focusing first on: lead, arsenic, cadmium, and mercury in foods, cosmetics, and dietary supplements, because high levels of exposure to those metals are likely to have the most significant impact on public health. Essential to prioritization is studying the large amount of data we have collected over the years. The FDA has been collecting data on contaminants and nutrients in foods for decades as part of its Total Diet Study. The study routinely samples products found in grocery stores from across the country, testing them for hundreds of contaminants, including these metals. These data are important because they can help us better understand how consumers are exposed to these contaminants. The data are also used in our risk assessments, such as the ones we completed for our work on arsenic in rice and mercury in fish.
- Identifying most vulnerable populations People vulnerable to the harmful effects of metals in food include infants and children, the elderly, and consumers who may have chronic health conditions. As the agency works to reduce consumer exposure to metals through foods and other products, we are paying special attention to children because their smaller body sizes and metabolism may make them more susceptible to the harmful effects of these metals. Of particular concern is the effect these metals have on children’s neurological development.
- Determining effective ways to reduce exposure –The FDA is committed to using the best available science information to inform and support policy decisions on toxic metals. FDA will consider a wide range of policies and actions to reduce exposure, ranging from requiring or encouraging industry to take steps to reduce the presence of the metals in products to educating consumers about ways they can reduce the risks posed by these metals.
Although the FDA has set specific levels for arsenic, lead, cadmium, and mercury in a variety of foods, more generally, the FDA has—and uses—the authority to take action on a case-by-case basis where a particular food is found through routine or targeted testing to be adulterated.