Arsenic Rice Stirs Debate

USA Rice Federation, health experts say "rice is safe"

Published on: Sep 20, 2012

A panel of food safety and nutrition experts agreed with the preliminary findings of the Food and Drug Administration, saying it would be "premature" to remove rice from consumer diets following a Consumer Reports article on "Arsenic in Your Food."

The FDA is analyzing 1,000 samples of rice and rice products to determine "what limits and other steps are needed to reduce exposure to arsenic in rice and rice products." The FDA aims to complete its analysis of the samples by the end of the year and then conduct a "full risk assessment and update recommendations as necessary."

USA Rice Federation, health experts say "rice is safe"
USA Rice Federation, health experts say "rice is safe"

The EPA currently considers 10 parts per billion of arsenic safe in drinking water.  The Consumer Reports article applied a 5 ppb standard to rice and urged the government to set lower limits while urging consumers to "limit their rice consumption."

Meanwhile, health experts joined the USA Rice Federation in a teleconference on Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2012, to take exception to the Consumer Reports article and its recommendations to limit rice consumption.

Tanya Remer Altmann, a pediatrician, mother of two boys and a best-selling author, called rice "an important part of a healthy diet for infants and children" and cautioned parents against removing rice from their children's diet. "I do believe rice is safe." It is fortified with iron and zinc and is the least allergenic of the cereals.

Pointing out that "arsenic is found in every food group," Julie Jones, professor emeritus at the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, Minn., echoed the pediatrician's comments. She points to the benefits that eating rice has on health. "I wished people would focus on the real risk," she says. "The real risk lies in our food choices … Having a good diet is your best defense against arsenic.  Just because arsenic is in a product doesn't mean that it's being absorbed."

James Coughlin, an independent food, nutritional and chemical toxicology consultant based in Orange County, Calif., says arsenic is in the soil, water and air and "can't be avoided."

 Arsenic comes in two forms: organic and inorganic. The word "organic" should not be confused with "organic farming."

Enzymes in the body detoxify the inorganic arsenic—the form that's been associated with long term health effects--convert it to its organic form and ship it off kidney, where it leaves the body through urine.  "I don't believe there's any issue with arsenic because of detoxification in the body," Coughlin says.

Pointing to no link between arsenic levels and increased disease in Japan, which eats five times more rice per day than U.S. consumers, Coughlin says the standard of 10 parts per billion in drinking water is "generally safe.

 "That (10 parts per billion) translates into 10 micrograms per liter of water," Coughlin says. The daily intake of rice in the U.S. is a third of a cup, Coughlin says. "That's 1 to 2 micrograms of arsenic per day. I take a lot of comfort in that number. A day's consumption of rice is 10 to 20 times safer" than what the FDA says is currently acceptable in relation to arsenic.

While continuing to study the issue, the FDA says there's an "absence of the necessary scientific data that shows a causal relationship between those who consume higher levels of rice and rice products and the type of illnesses usually associated with arsenic.

The EU's Codex Commission has been studying the issue for more than three years.  Codex decided in March to study the issue for two more years before issuing maximum levels for arsenic, Coughlin says. Study is focusing on organic and inorganic forms of arsenic.

The FDA is working in parallel with most other governments, Coughlin says.

Meanwhile, the U.S. rice industry is working with researchers and end users as well, looking at breeding methods as well as agronomic practices to reduce the arsenic uptake in rice, says Anne Banville, USA Rice Federation vice president for domestic promotion.

For more information: www.arsenicfacts.usarice.com and the FDA's Web site at www.fda.gov.