ALBANY — Beech-But Nutrition is the target of class-action lawsuits filed over potentially dangerous heavy metals in the baby food it makes.
Beech-Nut and six other baby food manufacturers were the subject of a critical report released Feb. 4 by a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee. Consumer-focused lawsuits rapidly followed, including two filed in federal court in Albany against Beech-Nut on Feb. 5 and 12.
Hain Celestial Group, Gerber and Campbell Soup were named in various other federal lawsuits, each of them seeking class status for all the people who had bought their baby food and allegedly been defrauded in the process.
Beech-Nut has operated for more than a century in Montgomery County, mostly in Canajoharie but more recently in the town of Florida, just outside Amsterdam.
Beech-Nut said via email Tuesday that it does not comment on pending litigation. However, it did address the underlying issue:
“We want to reassure parents that Beech-Nut products are safe and nutritious. We are currently reviewing the subcommittee report. We look forward to continuing to work with the FDA, in partnership with the Baby Food Council, on science-based standards that food suppliers can implement across our industry.”
The report by the Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy of the Committee on Oversight and Reform focused on the presence of arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury in baby food made by Beech-Nut, Campbell, Gerber, Hain Celestial, Nurture, Sprout Foods and Walmart.
The investigation was launched Nov. 6, 2019, in response to reports of heavy metals in baby food. These substances can be harmful to human health, especially for babies and young children with fragile, still-developing systems.
Campbell, Sprout and Walmart refused to comply with the subcommittee’s requests. The others provided internal testing policies, test results and documentation on what they did with ingredients and or finished products that exceeded their internal testing limits.
The provided data showed a significant presence of all four metals in the products of all four companies, leading the subcommittee to worry that the products of the three companies that refused to cooperate might contain “even higher levels of toxic heavy metals” than their competitors’ baby food.
Among the four companies’ data, Beech-Nut showed the highest level for three of the four metals. The fourth — mercury — is something that Beech-Nut (and Hain) don’t even test for.
A critical distinction is that these test results are for additives, some of which are used in very small quantities. So the batch of cinnamon that was tested by Beech-Nut at 886.9 parts per billion of lead on Oct. 19, 2016 may have been only a microscopic part of the finished bottle that Beech-Nut shipped out to store shelves. The lead content of the entire bottle would have been much lower.
(The federal limit for lead in bottled drinking water is 5 PPB.)
Beech-Nut’s own internal limits for the additives it uses are 5,000 PPB for lead and 3,000 PPB for arsenic and cadmium. Federal standards for bottled water are 10 PPB inorganic arsenic and 5 PPB cadmium. The report indicated Beech-Nut’s standards allowed the highest levels of metal among the four manufacturers that provided data.
Another critical distinction: Beech-Nut and a majority of baby food manufacturers don’t measure toxic metals in their finished products — only in the ingredients.
“That policy recklessly endangers babies and children and prevents the companies from even knowing the full extent of the danger presented by their products,” the report noted.
The report also noted that in every test Hain did perform on its final products, it found more arsenic than it expected to find.
The Democratic-controlled House subcommittee also noted in its report that the Trump administration received a “secret slide presentation” from Hain on Aug. 1, 2019, laying out the situation, but did nothing.
The committee recommended that manufacturers be required to test their final products, not just their ingredients; that levels of toxic heavy metals be required on labels; that toxic ingredients be phased out; and that the FDA set standards for baby food.
The two proposed class-action lawsuits against Beech-Nut quote heavily from the report, in some cases even copying charts.
One lawsuit has nine named defendants, the other just one. Only one is a New York state resident; the case was filed in the Northern District of New York because Beech-Nut makes its baby food here.
A combined seven law firms in five states and the District of Columbia are bringing the actions.
The two lawsuits run to a combined 134 pages but boil down to a simple allegation:
Beech-Nut knew but did not say its products contained heavy metals, thus misleading consumers who thought they were getting natural, organic, healthy products for the higher purchase price. To make this point, one of the lawsuits quotes Beech-Nut’s own website: “In fact, we conduct over 20 rigorous tests on our purees, testing for up to 255 pesticides and heavy metals (like lead, cadmium, arsenic and other nasty stuff). Just like you would, we send the produce back if it’s not good enough.”
The plaintiffs are seeking a jury trial and hope to achieve change and receive monetary awards. Specifically, they seek:
Court orders that would Enjoin Beech-Nut from selling the baby foods in question until the heavy metals are removed or full disclosure is given in labels and advertising, and enjoin it from suggesting or implying that such products are healthy, natural and safe.
A court order that Beech-Nut mount a corrective advertising campaign and take other affirmative actions, such as product recalls.
Restitution of all funds acquired through unfair or fraudulent practices; payment of actual, statutory and punitive damages; award of legal fees and costs; and any other relief possible.