The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Consumer Reports have found that rice and rice products sold in the U.S. have measurable amounts of arsenic. In fact, some brands of rice were found to have more arsenic in a single serving that what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) allows in a quart of drinking water.
Based on the results of its study, the nonprofit organization recommends that people consumer less of the rice products. But the government agency is holding off on its recommendations until it completes its study late this year and releases the results next year, reports Voice of America.
Michael Taylor, FDA’s deputy commission for foods, says:
Arsenic is a substance that nobody wants in food, but we are confident that at the levels that we are seeing, there is no immediate safety concern. People should continue eating rice. We don’t think, based on the preliminary information that we have, that we can recommend that consumers change their eating practices. Rice is an important staple of the diet. It’s a nutritious, healthy food.
Finding out what is present in the plants requires chemical analysis and testing. Agencies and nonprofits that conduct chemical tests to determine the molecular makeup of consumer and industrial products either have their own laboratories or hire contractors to perform the testing.
EPA has a maximum contaminant level of 0.01 mg/L (or 10 parts per billion) of arsenic in drinking water. The standard became effective in 2002 but EPA had first proposed a standard of half that level.
There is no standard for arsenic in food. The FDA is mainly concerned with cumulative lifetime exposure to arsenic, Taylor says. “I think we would want to be sure we have much more information before we make decisions about recommending changes in eating patterns,” he notes.
Consumer Reports’ study found that a single serving of some of the household rice it tested could give an average adult almost one and a half times EPA’s originally proposed standard of inorganic arsenic that he or she would ingest from a whole day’s consumption of water. The survey discovered that people who ate rice had arsenic levels in their bodies that were, on average, 44% greater than those who did not, reports CBS Baltimore.
The study also found that white rice grown in Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, and Texas — where 76% of domestic rice is grown — has higher levels of inorganic arsenic than rice samples from other place. And the study found that arsenic levels tended to be higher in brown rice than white rice.
The nonprofit organization was more forthcoming than the FDA about recommendations regarding rice consumption, particularly when it came to infants. Ami Gadhia, Consumer Reports, says:
From a public health standpoint, there is great deal of concern about what babies are ingesting. Very often the first solid food that babies are given is rice cereal, and to see arsenic in that product is obviously a problem. We also saw levels in rice milk, and sometimes if children are allergic to cow milk they are given rice milk.
FDA surveyed 1,200 rice samples, while Consumer Reports reviewed 200. Officials from both entities acknowledged that their results were similar, but only the FDA can set national industry standards.
Arsenic is a known carcinogen and can kill people if they have levels in their body that is too high. It comes in two forms: organic and inorganic. Organic arsenic, which is thought to be non-toxic, occurs naturally; it is found in rocks and gets into soil by leaching effects of water. Inorganic arsenic comes mainly from commercial fertilizers and pesticides, although it is also used in wood preservation, as an additive in feed for some animals, and in making metals and batteries, reports U.S. News and World Report’s Health.
“Many of those pesticides were banned many years ago. Unfortunately, those pesticides and the arsenic in them remain in the soil, and so it is still getting into the rice plants,” Gadhia says.
Rice can absorb arsenic from soil and water much better than most other plants, in part, because it is commonly grown in water-flooded conditions. The watery conditions allow arsenic to be more easily absorbed by plant roots.
Some rice producers argued that the Consumer Reports survey was making too much out of a small issue. “There is no documented evidence of actual adverse health effects from exposure to arsenic in U.S.-grown rice,” says Anne Banville, a vice president of the USA Rice Federation, a trade association representing the $34-billion rice industry. “And we believe the health benefits of rice must be properly weighed against the risks of arsenic exposure, which we believe are minimal.”
Other rice-product manufacturers have taken measures to control the amount of arsenic in their products. For example, an Ohio company that produced the nation’s first organic baby formula wanted to eliminate arsenic from its product, after an earlier report implicated the element was present. The chief executive officer searched for a pure source of a rice and found one outside of the United States. Then he developed a filtration process that brought the amount of arsenic down to an undetectable level or close to it.
The nonprofit organization recommended that a standard for arsenic should be established for rice. Industries should set up practices that in which more rice is used that absorb little arsenic. Rice products for young children should have the lowest possible arsenic in them.
Further, the organization specifically recommended that:
- The EPA should phase out use of pesticides containing arsenic;
- The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the EPA should end the use of arsenic-laden manure as fertilizer; and
- The FDA should ban the feeding of arsenic-containing drugs and animal byproducts to animals.
“The need for a standard for arsenic in food is long overdue,” says Trudy Bialic, director of public affairs for PCC Natural Markets, a Seattle-based chain that is the nation’s largest food co-op. “Certainly there are excellent and committed people in FDA’s ranks, but it’s shameful the agency has not addressed this problem more systematically, leaving us to figure it out on our own to protect ourselves.”
Source: “Tests Show Levels of Arsenic in U.S. Rice,” Voice of America, 9/21/12
Source: “Arsenic in Your Food,” Consumer Reports, November 2012
Source: “High Levels Of Arsenic Found In Rice Products,“ CBS Baltimore, 9/25/12
Source: “Arsenic in Rice: of Baby and Bath Water,” U.S. News and World Report’s Health, 9/28/12
Image by Tamago915.
Dale McGeehon has been a journalist and editor for more than 25 years, covering chemical regulation and testing for Pesticides and Toxic Chemical News and innovations in material sciences for the National Technology Transfer Center. His writing credits include Omni and College Park magazines and The New York Times.