LOS ANGELES (TND) — As the number of children diagnosed with autism hits staggering highs, a groundbreaking lawsuit seeks to hold some of America's most trusted baby food companies at least partially responsible.
The first of its kind lawsuit is on the cusp of a monumental step forward. This month, a judge heard early arguments about the presence of toxic heavy metals in baby food, and how they may harm a child's developing brain. It's an issue Spotlight on America has been investigating for years. If the judge rules that the science is valid, major brands like Gerber and Beech-Nut could soon be in the hot seat in a court of law and millions of families could have potential recourse.
Spotlight on America was first to speak with the California mom who is taking on an army of industry giants on behalf of her son, claiming his autism diagnosis can be traced back to heavy metals in the food he ate as an infant.
The discovery of toxic heavy metals like lead, mercury, arsenic and cadmium in baby food is not new.
For more than a year, Spotlight on America has investigated the issue.
We tracked down the original scientists who conducted the first major testing of baby food for heavy metals in 2016. Those scientists, we discovered, tried to warn both the baby food companies and the Food and Drug Administration about what they found.
Documents obtained by Spotlight on America confirmed the FDA and industry knew about the problem but failed to take action. And while a key lawmaker worked tirelessly to hold companies accountable, the contamination continued. We discovered baby foods, exposed in two congressional reports for having dangerous levels of heavy metals, were still being offered to low-income families through a government food assistance program.
But, despite wide-ranging investigations and damning evidence uncovered by a congressional committee, the issue has never been in court — until now.
At the center is Melissa Cantabrana, a mother who is taking on the baby food industry because of her 8-year-old son Noah, who has autism. Cantabrana glows when she talks about him.
He is amazing, he is so cute," she said. "He's got curly hair and he is very silly.
For most of his life, Noah has been struggling with autism, diagnosed when he was 33 months old. According to the law firm representing Noah Cantabrana, his diagnosis has made life challenging, as he and his family cope with Noah's inability to control his emotions, his problems with communicating and interacting with others, as well as trouble sleeping.
It's a diagnosis his mom would later connect to the food he ate as a baby which was legacy baby-food brands known to contain neurotoxic heavy metals like lead, arsenic, mercury and cadmium.
Melissa Cantabrana learned about heavy metal contamination in baby food along with millions of other parents when Congress released a scathing report in February 2021, condemning the baby food industry for knowingly selling products with heavy metals, known to be hazardous to the developing brain of an infant.
Top health organizations, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization, agree these neurotoxins can cause serious and life-threatening health problems and for some contaminants like lead, there is no safe level.
Despite settled science establishing the dangers, the congressional report found baby foods and their ingredients far surpass levels of heavy metals allowed in bottled water by the FDA. That includes some products which contained up to 91 times the allowable level of arsenic set for bottled water, up to 177 times the allowable level of lead, up to 69 times the allowable level of cadmium, and up to five times the allowable level of mercury.
Though the initial 2021 report made headlines and caused an outcry among parents, there was no immediate change to reduce the levels of heavy metals. Instead, just nine months later, another congressional report would reveal new findings, demonstrating dangerous levels of toxic heavy metals in even more baby foods.
I was just blown away. It made me really angry, made me really upset to think that these heavy metals are in baby food," Cantabrana told Spotlight on America. "And I immediately thought, we don't have autism in our family. I instantly knew, this is it. This is what I'm talking about.
That instinct prompted Cantabrana to contact a law firm. Fast forward to today and she is no longer the lone mom asking questions about why top baby food manufacturers continued to make and market products that could harm a child's developing brain.
Her legal team, led by Pedram Esfandiary of the Baum Hedlund firm intends to establish a causal link between toxic heavy metals in baby food and autism/attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD).
Esfandiary is no stranger to uncharted territory. He and fellow attorney Brent Wisner worked on the trial team that won the first of multiple groundbreaking verdicts against Monsanto, claiming the company sold the weed killer RoundUp knowing it caused cancer. Esfandiary's arguments paved the way for jury verdicts worth billions.
The targets of this latest lawsuit, giants like Gerber, Wal-Mart and Beech-Nut have amassed legal teams of dozens of attorneys. Esfandiary says this herculean defense effort by industry instills confidence and fire.
I’m not concerned about the fact that these guys are Goliaths. All that matters is what the truth is," said Esfandiary. "And the facts say these metals should have never been in baby food. They should have never ended up in the bodies of American children.
A blistering 41-page complaint filed in a Los Angeles court alleges the companies, including Hain, Beech-Nut, Nurture, Plum, Gerber, Wal-Mart, and Sprout demonstrated a "malicious recklessness and callous disregard for human life" that "wreaked havoc on the health of children."
The complaint alleges that Noah "lives with Debilitating Autism Spectrum Disorder and Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder because he consumed poisonous Baby Foods manufactured and sold by these Defendants."
The counts include:
The complaint goes on to say there are multiple studies that have observed "a positive association between exposure to Toxic Heavy Metals and the development of ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) in children and infant populations."
A key step in the case is proving the science. The court required Esfandiary to demonstrate there is enough science on the issue to proceed to a jury trial in what's known as a Sargon hearing, which allows both sides to educate the court on the science their arguments are based on, leaving a judge to decide whether each expert's opinion is based on "sound logic."
In a virtual hearing over the course of four days, the judge heard from a panel of four experts. A brief summary of their expertise is below. To read their full biographies, click here. To read their reports, click on their names below.
The experts testified heavy metals in baby food can cause autism spectrum disorder and ADHD. It's the first time that kind of data has ever been scrutinized under oath. Despite the high stakes, Esfandiary expressed confidence.
"The data is truly overwhelming here," he told us. "We're talking about toxic heavy metals. These are well-known potent neurotoxins that have no business in a human body."
Esfandiary told Spotlight on America his experts can make the case, despite efforts by the defense to paint heavy metals in baby food as the unfair recipients of public ire in much the same way that vaccines were once blamed for autism, but are now vindicated.
"Defendants have actually already tried to compare our case to vaccines, and it simply just falls by the wayside because it's a complete red herring," said Esfandiary. "We're talking about different types of mercury and our experts will address this. I'm not worried about it. I'm confident the court will see through their charade and exclude any references to vaccines because it simply has nothing to do with this case whatsoever."
The next step will happen in early March when the judge will hear from defense experts. A ruling could come shortly thereafter. If the judge decides that the science is valid, the case will move to discovery, which could potentially unleash a trove of new documents and data on the issue.
I expect to see, unfortunately, the same playbook we've seen with tobacco, and that Monsanto used with pesticides," Esfandiary told us. "We'll get to see to what extent these companies deliberately played ostrich, stuck their head in the sand and looked the other way, because at the end of the day, they're making a lot of money out of this, right?
Esfandiary believes if the judge rules the science is valid and allows discovery, a jury trial could happen this year. And the implications could span far beyond the Cantabrana family. Esfandiary told us that if they prevail in court, he hopes it will inspire the FDA to be more proactive in regulating the industry. Right now, the FDA has released a plan that takes several years to establish and enforce lower limits for toxic heavy metals in baby food.
For now, as the attorneys argue their case in court, Noah's mom continues to work with him in therapy and through homeschooling, telling us that while she still worries, she's motivated by a larger purpose. "I'm hopeful that we will get to share this information out there to other moms and other families that it's time for this to stop."
Cantabrana says she's constantly reminded of what's at stake every time she goes to the store and sees baby food sitting on the shelves.
It really bothers me when I go down the baby food aisles," she told us. "They need to be held responsible for this.
Cantabrana's case is not the only one seeking to hold the baby food industry accountable for toxic metal contamination. Pedram Esfandiary told us cases are flooding in, and he represents more than 1,000 families in other cases. For additional information about the pending lawsuits about toxic heavy metals in baby food, the law firm has posted a series of videos on their website.
None of the attorneys for the baby food industry we contacted responded to our requests for interviews. They argued in court that there are no existing scientific studies that have attempted to directly link autism to the consumption of baby food.
Our team has repeatedly reached out to Gerber, Beech-Nut, Nurture, Plum, Sprout and Hain for interviews. None has agreed to speak with us.