Cadmium may be present in food from the environment where foods are grown, raised, or processed. Levels of cadmium in the environment can vary depending on natural geographical makeup of soil and proximity to current or past use or manufacturing of products made with cadmium. For example, cadmium levels are higher in areas where some phosphate fertilizers are used, and where industrial processes such as smelting, mining, and burning of fossil fuels occur. Current uses of cadmium include nickel-cadmium (Ni-Cd) rechargeable batteries, coatings (electroplating), solar cells, and pigments.
Because cadmium exposure at certain levels can be harmful to health, the FDA monitors and regulates levels of cadmium in foods. While it is not possible to completely prevent cadmium from entering the food supply, for foods that contain cadmium, it may be possible to reduce levels through changes to agricultural or manufacturing practices. By law, food manufacturers have a responsibility to significantly minimize or prevent chemical hazards when needed.
To determine if the level of cadmium in a food is a potential health concern, the FDA considers the toxicity of cadmium and potential exposure based on the level measured in the food and estimated consumption. We also may consider the risks specific to vulnerable subpopulations (e.g., very young children). If the agency finds that the level of cadmium causes a food to be unsafe, we will take regulatory action. This may include working with the manufacturer to resolve the issue, and as necessary, taking steps to prevent the product from entering, or remaining, in the U.S. market.
Among the FDA’s top priorities is maintaining access to foods that are sources of nutrients while limiting consumer exposure to contaminants. Having adequate nutrition is vital to growth and development for babies and children and helps promote health and prevent disease throughout our lifespan. The FDA collaborates with state and federal partners, industry, and other stakeholders to identify and facilitate the implementation of sustainable and effective strategies for growing, sourcing, processing, and manufacturing foods that contain lower levels of environmental contaminants, such as cadmium, while maintaining their nutritional quality and accessibility.
For more information about the FDA’s specific activities to reduce exposure to arsenic, lead, cadmium, and mercury from foods consumed by babies and young children, please visit the Closer to Zero page.
Cadmium in the environment can be taken up by plants and ingested by animals and enter the food supply. Cadmium is more common in certain foods and in foods grown in geographical areas with higher levels in the environment. In addition, pottery with cadmium-based pigments may leach cadmium into foods. People can be exposed to cadmium in occupational settings, such as smelting and demolition, and in factories that manufacture batteries and electronic plating. For smokers, smoking is the primary source of exposure to cadmium.
Testing results that detect cadmium do not necessarily mean the food should be avoided. Because many of the most nutritious foods can also contain contaminants, consumers should eat a variety of nutrient-dense foods across and within the main food groups of vegetables, fruits, grains, dairy, and protein foods. This is good for nutrition and can also limit exposure to a contaminant from a specific food. In addition, research studies have found that good nutrition can also help protect from the effects of exposure to contaminants.
A Look at Cadmium in Two Very Different Types of Foods
One food that FDA has analyzed for contaminants is seaweed. Used mostly in sushi wraps, salads, and soups, as well as in thickening agents and livestock feed, among other uses, seaweed is becoming increasingly popular in the U.S. It is a food of interest because seaweed contains several health-promoting nutrients, while also being a source of exposure to arsenic and cadmium, and to a lesser extent, lead and mercury. Seaweed is a good example of why detection of a contaminant does not make the food necessarily bad for you if eaten as part of a varied diet.
A very different example of a food FDA tests for contaminants is chocolate. Cadmium levels in this popular treat depend on the growing area and the percentage of cocoa solids in the chocolate product. While the presence of cadmium in chocolate has been the subject of considerable media attention, experts from around the world have found that chocolate is a minor source of exposure to cadmium internationally. The World Health Organization concluded in 2021 that “contribution of cocoa products to dietary cadmium exposure was minor (0.1-9.4%) for national studies and estimates based on GEMS/Food cluster diets), even in countries in which the consumption of cocoa products is relatively high.”
Resources from the FDA:
- Help Protect Children from Environmental Contaminants, Healthy Food Choices for Your Baby Aged 6-12 Months
- Bottled Water Everywhere: Keeping It Safe
- FDA Regulates the Safety of Bottled Water Beverages Including Flavored Water and Nutrient-Added Water Beverages
- Total Diet Study
Resources from Other Federal Government Agencies:
- United States Environmental Protection Agency
- United States Environmental Protection Agency: Aquatic Life Criteria
- United States Environmental Protection Agency—Heavy Metals in Cultural Products
- United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
- Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry
The potential adverse health effects from consuming foods contaminated with cadmium vary depending on the level of cadmium in the food; age of the consumer; length, amount, and frequency of exposure to cadmium in the food; and other exposures to different sources of cadmium and to beneficial nutrients. Eating food or drinks contaminated with levels of cadmium that are rarely seen in foods can cause stomach irritation, abdominal cramps, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.
Exposure to cadmium through inhalation can result in respiratory illness and over long periods, as with cigarette smoking or through occupational exposure, is linked to many different types of cancer. The human body eliminates cadmium slowly, and years of exposure to low levels of cadmium can result in cadmium accumulation in the kidneys, liver, and other parts of the body. Prolonged exposure to cadmium is associated with health effects such as bone demineralization, kidney and reproductive dysfunction, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes.
More information about health effects can be found by visiting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The FDA tests food for environmental contaminants, such as cadmium, to monitor the safety of the U.S. food supply, enforce FDA regulations, inform agency guidance to industry, and provide the public with accurate, science-based information. Testing may be targeted to a specific category of food, such as foods commonly eaten by children under 2 years of age, or to a specific food or food group. Testing may also be conducted in response to reports of elevated contaminant levels in certain foods. Testing may occur at FDA laboratories, laboratories we contract with, or at state laboratories as part of our cooperative agreement with states.
The FDA tests for environmental contaminants, including cadmium, through:
- the Total Diet Study;
- the FDA’s Toxic Elements in Food and Foodware, and Radionuclides in Food Compliance Program; and
- Other surveys, which may be conducted annually or in response to reports of elevated contaminant levels in certain products or to focus on a specific food or food group.
In addition, the FDA has been conducting research to optimize testing methods to measure increasingly smaller amounts of these environmental contaminants. Currently, FDA’s Elemental Analysis Manual Method 4.7 is used by the FDA to analyze for lead, cadmium, as well as other elements in all foods to concentrations as low as 3 parts per billion (ppb).
- Analytical Results for Arsenic, Lead, Cadmium, and Mercury in Foods Intended for Babies and Young Children- TEP (FY2008-FY2021) in PDF, in XLSX
Sampled under the FDA’s Toxic Elements in Food and Foodware, and Radionuclides in Food – Import and Domestic Compliance Program, posted March 2023
- FDA Total Diet Study (TDS) FY2018-FY2020 Elements Report and Data (2022)
- Dataset for Lead and Cadmium in Infant and Toddler Foods in XLSX - (FY2013-FY2014)
Sampled as part of an FDA survey of toxic elements in foods commonly consumed by babies and young children, posted October 2017
Scientific Articles and Reports
- Reassessment of the cadmium toxicological reference value for use in human health assessments of foods (2023)
- A survey of toxic elements in ready to eat baby foods in the US market 2021 (2022)
- A systematic review of adverse health effects associated with oral cadmium exposure (2022)
- A scoping review of infant and children health effects associated with cadmium exposure (2022)
- Distribution of 26 major and trace elements in edible seaweeds from the US market (2022)
- Modeling the risk of low bone mass and osteoporosis as a function of urinary cadmium in U.S adults aged 50–79 years (2022)
- Cadmium physiologically based pharmacokinetic (PBPK) models for forward and reverse dosimetry: Review, evaluation, and adaptation to the U.S. population (2022)
- Perspective on Cadmium and Lead in Cocoa and Chocolate (2020)
- Cadmium: Mitigation strategies to reduce dietary exposure (2020)
- Children’s exposures to lead and cadmium: FDA total diet study 2014-16 (2019)
- Cadmium and lead in cocoa powder and chocolate products in the US Market (2018)
Interim Reference Level or Toxicological Reference Value
An interim reference level (IRL) is a benchmark the FDA may use to determine if the amount of exposure to the contaminant in food is a potential health concern. IRLs also may be used to inform action levels, which are the level of contaminant in a food above which the FDA may consider a food harmful to health and in violation of the FDA’s safety laws.
For the IRL for cadmium, the FDA has adopted a toxicological reference value (TRV) range for cadmium of 0.21-0.36 micrograms (µg) per kilogram body weight per day. In the context of cadmium, FDA uses the terms “IRL” and “TRV” interchangeably. In determining this TRV, the FDA conducted extensive research to understand the relationship between dietary cadmium exposure and potential adverse health effects. As a result of this research, the FDA identified health effects on bone and kidneys as the most sensitive health outcome associated with cadmium exposure. The FDA may use the TRV range in FDA human health assessments following the detection of cadmium in a food to help determine if any regulatory action is needed to protect the public health. The FDA will also re-evaluate the TRV as new information or data become available for other adverse health effects.
- For more information on IRLs and action levels, please visit Closer to Zero: Reducing Childhood Exposure to Contaminants from Foods.
- For more information on FDA’s research to develop the TRV, please visit: Reassessment of the cadmium toxicological reference value for use in human health assessments of foods - PubMed (nih.gov)
- For additional background information, please visit: 2022 Meeting Materials, Science Board to the FDA
International Scientific Activities
FDA experts participate in the international standard-setting body, Codex Alimentarius Commission (Codex), whose purpose is to protect the health of consumers and promote fair trade practices by adopting scientifically based standards, guidelines, and codes of practice across all areas of food safety and quality. Codex has recommended maximum levels for cadmium in chocolate in international trade, including levels ranging from 0.7-0.9 mg/kg for dark chocolates. In addition, the FDA has worked with the international community on Codex standards and helped to include in The 15th session of the Codex Committee on Contaminants in Foods Report, a Code of Practice for the Prevention and Reduction of Cadmium in Cocoa Beans. Codex standards consider risk assessments by the Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA). Some of the findings of the most recent JECFA assessment on chocolate can be found here: Joint FAO/WHO Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) work on cadmium in chocolates and cocoa-derived products: CODEXALIMENTARIUS.
There are no FDA regulations that authorize cadmium for use as a color additive or food additive (including as a component of foodware, cookware, or food contact surfaces). The FDA seeks to limit the amount of cadmium in foods when it is not otherwise possible to avoid cadmium entirely.
It is the legal responsibility of companies that grow or produce foods, or manufacture products intended for use with foods sold in the U.S. to comply with the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act and FDA’s regulations.
If the FDA determines that the level of cadmium causes the food to be unsafe, the agency will take action. This may include working with the manufacturer to resolve the issue, and as necessary, taking steps to prevent the product from entering, or remaining, in the U.S. market.
Bottled Water Regulation: The FDA limits the level of cadmium (as well as other contaminants) in bottled water by establishing allowable levels in the quality standard for bottled water. For cadmium, this level is set to 5 ppb, the same amount allowed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for public drinking water.
- 21 CFR Part 129 - Processing and Bottling of Bottled Drinking Water
- 21 CFR Part 165.110 - Bottled Water
The FDA issues import alerts to prevent potentially violative products from being distributed in the United States. The agency has issued import alerts for certain foods and products from certain manufacturers that may pose a food safety hazard due to the presence of elevated levels of cadmium.
- Import Alert 99-42 on heavy metals (including cadmium) in foods
- Import Alert 99-45 unsafe food additive
- Import Alert 52-08 lead and cadmium in ceramicware
Guidance for Industry
The FDA issues guidance for industry to describe the agency’s current thinking on a regulatory issue. For example, guidance on action levels communicates to industry the level of contaminants in foods at which the FDA may take enforcement action. Unlike regulations, guidance is not legally binding for the FDA or industry. The FDA intends to issue Draft Guidance to Industry on Cadmium in Foods Intended for Babies and Young Children in 2024.
Compliance Policy Guides
The FDA issues compliance policy guides for FDA staff to assist in their evaluation of evaluating industry compliance with FDA safety requirements. These guides are intended for FDA use but are made publicly available.