Some metals. such as arsenic, lead, cadmium, mercury and others, occur naturally in certain foods, because they are environmental pollutants in air, water and soil and enter the food supply when plants take them up as they grow. While FDA has actively monitored the levels of these metals, scientific advances have enabled increased detection and data, thus the agency is seeking to identify other areas in which we can further improve our efforts to reduce the level of these metals in foods.
Thus, in 2017, FDA established the Toxic Elements Working Group, led by Conrad Choiniere, FDA CFSAN director of the Office of Analytics and Outreach. The workgroup is focused on shaping what FDA will do to protect consumers of all ages from these metals when present in foods.
Following are extracts from an online Q&A with Choiniere about the workgroup and its mission:
Part of our mission is to use a risk-based approach to prioritizing and modernizing what we do about these contaminants. We are attempting to target our efforts based on levels of the different contaminants in foods and other products, the amount of the products consumed, and the population groups that consume them, to identify areas where we can have the greatest impact. We also have to consider the feasibility of any potential solution. For example, if we identify a food that may have relatively high levels of a heavy metal, we need to look into whether and how we can reduce those levels. Can they be reduced by changing how the food is grown or manufactured. Should we also be informing consumers about what they can do to protect themselves? Once we zero in on the problem, we can offer remedies.
In the short term, we are working on finalizing the draft guidance that sets an action-level for the presence of inorganic arsenic in infant rice cereals and apple juice. Also, we have taken note that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has lowered the acceptable level of lead in blood. That, in turn, has led us to begin reevaluating the specific lead levels that FDA has set for a variety of foods.
This isn’t the first time the agency has taken a close look at the presence of these metals in our food. In recent years, FDA has provided advice to consumers related to eating seafood and infant rice cereals and proposed levels to industry for reducing arsenic in some of the foods consumed by infants and young children. After taking these actions, the agency committed to taking a more strategic, global approach -- looking at all the metals across all foods rather than one contaminant, one food at a time.
Part of the work involves studying the large amount of data FDA has collected over the years. We have been collecting data on contaminants and nutrients in foods for decades as part of our Total Diet Study. We routinely sample products from across the country. We don’t target specific brands or stores but choose foods that are representative of the American diet. We have sampled hundreds of foods and tested them for nearly 400 contaminants, including the four metals, so we have a lot of data to work with. We also use data from other studies to understand how much of these foods people are eating and who specifically is eating them. Then we use all the information to determine how much of a contaminant may be getting into any person’s diet on an annual basis.
One thing that comes across when I look at the data is that there isn’t one single source we can point to that results in exposure to these metals. Even though the levels of a metal in any particular food is low, our overall exposure adds up because many of the foods we eat contain them in small amounts.
FDA is exploring ways to get input from all stakeholders (consumers, industry, state and local partners, and other public health agencies) on what should be considered. The agency sees it as a good opportunity to bring together stakeholders to gather as much data and input as possible to help the group make the best recommendations possible. Read the full Q&A at https://www.fda.gov/Food/FoodborneIllnessContaminants/Metals/ucm604173.htm.