Arsenic Levels In Rice Prompt Concern

Research group pushes government for regulation

Published on: Sep 19, 2012

New data released Wednesday finding "concerning" levels of arsenic in rice has research group Consumer Reports calling for federal action to implement arsenic limits.

In testing more than 200 samples of 60 rice varieties and rice products, researchers at Consumer Reports found varying levels of the potentially harmful inorganic arsenic. Some samples, they say, exceeded safe levels.

Arsenic, which is found in water, air and soil, can be classified as inorganic or organic. Together, the two make up "total arsenic." Inorganic arsenic, according to the Food and Drug Administration, is the form that has been associated with adverse health effects. However, they say these problems are due to long-term, high-level arsenic exposure.

Research group pushes government for regulation
Research group pushes government for regulation

The FDA is currently conducting their own study of arsenic levels in rice, and though they are not ready to release full data on their tests, they say data collection will be complete before the end of the year.

A Safety Issue?

The recent findings have created a stir, but in a statement Wednesday, FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg said the FDA understands concerns and is making analysis of arsenic levels in rice a priority.

"The FDA is committed to ensuring that we understand the extent to which substances such as arsenic are present in our foods, what risks they may pose, whether these risks can be minimized, and to sharing what we know," Hamburg said. "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 studies have so far returned "average" levels of inorganic arsenic for rice and rice products tested.

Still, Consumer Reports says their findings are enough to change eating habits. They recommend that consumers limit exposure by utilizing other grains with lower overall arsenic levels, rinsing raw rice before cooking and eating a varied diet.

In a statement Wednesday, Consumer Reports Director of Safety and Sustainability Urvashi Rangan said the goal is to inform consumers about actions they can take to reduce arsenic exposure.

"Given what we now know about arsenic's increasing role in contributing to multiple cancers and other serious health effects, the government needs to regulate arsenic in food. This includes setting standards and banning the practices that persistently deliver arsenic into our food and water supply," Rangan said.

But, USA Rice Federation doesn't believe the hype. They say the Consumer Reports study "employs an 'arsenic content standard' that doesn't exist in federal law. It cites federal health data to allege health risk from arsenic ingestion when that data is based on arsenic excreted from, rather than absorbed by, the body. It offers consumption advice without addressing all of the relevant public health issues that must be taken into account." (For more on their comments, click here)

Arsenic Prevalence

According to Purdue University scientist Jody Brooks, arsenic is an element that remains in the environment as a result of human inputs or natural processes. As plants grow, they may take up the arsenic from the soil or from water.

Brooks is currently studying the properties of a rare fern that can take up and store arsenic in its fronds, or leaves, in hopes that those traits may someday be used to divert arsenic from edible portions of plants into non-edible ones.

"There's two possible outcomes, one is that we can try to figure out how this particular plant takes arsenic out of the soil and stores it in its fronds, so that could be useful for getting plants to remove the arsenic from the soil," Brooks said. "The second thing is if we can understand how it is able to tolerate the arsenic, we can use this knowledge to modify a plant so it can grow in arsenic but it actually accumulates less."

Brooks said some plants take up more arsenic than others while growing, and understanding take up can help scientists monitor food safety.