Posted 9/24/2012 12:00 am
Updated 7 months ago
Consumer Reports last week reported that it had found "worrisome" levels of inorganic arsenic, a cancer-causing agent, in rice and a number of rice products consumed widely in the U.S. and called for the federal government to set limits on arsenic in rice.
The report prompted a flurry of statements from the government and the rice-producing industry and mirrors findings by the consumer watchdog organization late last year on "worrisome" levels of arsenic in apple and grape juices. That report also led Consumer Reports to call for government limits for arsenic in the juices.
The consumer group tested more than 200 rice products and found varying levels of arsenic, including some that it termed "significant."
"White rice grown in Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, and Texas generally had higher levels of total arsenic and inorganic arsenic than rice samples from elsewhere (India, Thailand and California combined)," Consumer Reports said.
Arkansas is the top rice-producing state in the U.S., producing about 48 percent of rice grown in the nation. Any widespread consumer concerns about the grain's safety have the potential to disrupt what is a $1 billion industry in the state and what is, according to the USA Rice Federation, a $34 billion industry nationwide.
Almost concurrently with the Consumer Reports statement, the federal Food & Drug Administration issued its own statement saying that it planned to study arsenic levels in rice further. The FDA also released what it called preliminary data on arsenic in rice and rice products.
The agency said, however, that it currently lacks "an adequate scientific basis to recommend changes by consumers regarding their consumption of rice and rice products."
The USA Rice Federation and the Arkansas Rice Federation, industry trade groups, responded with their own statements, which echoed each other.
"Arkansas rice continues to be a nutritious food and an important part of a healthy diet," said Ben Noble, executive director of the Arkansas Rice Federation. "We understand that ‘arsenic' is an alarming word but consumers should know that arsenic is a naturally occurring element in our air, water, rocks and soil. It's always been in our food supply and no pesticides containing arsenic are used when growing Arkansas or U.S. rice."
Noble said that rice growers in the state were "committed to ensuring the quality and safety of rice and rice-based products," and emphasized that the FDA wasn't yet making any changes in its recommendations on rice consumption.
The Arkansas Rice Federation represents the Arkansas Rice Producers' Group, Arkansas Rice Council, Arkansas Rice Millers and Arkansas Rice Merchants.
Consumer Reports itself noted that arsenic occurs naturally in many foods and that there is no federal limit for arsenic in most foods. But it also added that the Environmental Protection Agency "assumes there is actually no ‘safe' level of exposure to inorganic arsenic."
In its study, Consumer Reports said it had found that a number of rice products sold by grocery stores around the country contain arsenic, many at worrisome levels. The products, both organic and conventional, ranged from baby cereal to breakfast cereal to white and brown rice and included name brand and store labels.
"Arsenic not only is a potent human carcinogen but also can set up children for other health problems in later life," the organization said.
Because the FDA hasn't set a limit on arsenic in food, Consumer Reports looked to the EPA for a guideline. The EPA's limit for arsenic in drinking water is 10 parts per billion or ppb. Consumer Reports noted, however, that the 10 ppb standard was twice the 5 parts per billion that the environmental agency had initially proposed, so the consumer watchdog group set a guide of 5 ppb.
"Using the 5-ppb standard in our study, we found that a single serving of some rices could give an average adult almost one and a half times the inorganic arsenic he or she would get from a whole day's consumption of water, about 1 liter."
The tests examined both organic and inorganic arsenic. Of the two, inorganic is considered much more dangerous and is a known carcinogen, or cancer-causing agent. The human body can metabolize organic arsenic but not inorganic.
Among other highlights of the Consumer Reports findings:
- Some infant rice cereals, which are often the first solid foods babies are given, had inorganic arsenic levels five times higher than oatmeal or other alternatives.
- Brown rice has higher total and inorganic arsenic levels.
- Its study of federal health data showed that people who ate rice "had arsenic levels that were at least 44 percent greater than those who had not."
- Certain ethnic groups - "including Mexicans, other Hispanics, and a broad category that included Asians" - were more highly affected.
- The organization concluded that, based on its studies, the FDA should set limits for arsenic in rice and rice products and fruit juices.
The FDA said last week that it was collecting and analyzing about 1,200 samples of rice and rice products, a process that would be finished by the end of this year. The agency will then analyze the results and decide whether more recommendations are needed.
"Our advice right now is that consumers should continue to eat a balanced diet that includes a wide variety of grains - not only for good nutrition but also to minimize any potential consequences from consuming any one particular food," FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg said.
The arsenic findings come just a bit more than a year after U.S. rice farmers, including a number in Arkansas, and Bayer AG reached a $750 million settlement agreement over contamination of the U.S. rice supply by Bayer's genetically modified rice.
The $750 million settlement is in addition to previous settlements in which Bayer agreed to pay to some plaintiffs in various lawsuits over the Liberty Link rice. The plaintiffs include farmers, rice exporters, rice importers, rice mills and rice seed dealers.
Rice farmers said the contamination finding cost them millions of dollars in lost sales.