FDA Urged to Set Standards for Arsenic in Rice

Consumer groups are urging the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) to set standards for arsenic levels in rice. Arsenic can be found naturally in water, air, food, and soil in both organic and inorganic forms. While organic arsenic passes out of the body quickly and is considered harmless, inorganic arsenic, which can be found in pesticides, for instance, can be toxic and carcinogenic.

Officials at the federal regulator say that they have not found evidence suggesting rice is not safe to consume, said The Associated Press (AP). The FDA also said that it has researched the matter for decades and is measuring arsenic levels in 1,200 grocery-store rice products that include, said the AP, short and long-grain rice, adult and baby cereals, drinks, and rice cakes.

Because rice is grown in water on the ground—a prime condition in which arsenic may be absorbed into the grain—it is believed to contain arsenic in higher levels than in other foods, explained the AP, which added that no federal standards exist for allowable arsenic levels in food. “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 Hamburg told the AP.

Following the Consumer Reports study seeking federal standards for arsenic levels in rice, the agency released 200 of the 1,200 samples; the agency study is not expected to be complete until the end of the year, said Hamburg, noting that conclusions can not be made until then. Both the FDA and Consumer Reports found similar arsenic levels in rice with the FDA finding average levels of 3.5 to 6.7 micrograms of inorganic arsenic per serving in its study of 200 samples, said the FDA. Using 223 samples, Consumer Reports found levels up to 8.7 micrograms. The findings are comparable to about one gram of arsenic in 115,000 servings of rice, the AP explained.

Consumer Reports found higher arsenic levels brown versus white rice, which has to do with different processing; rice produced in the Southern states had higher arsenic levels than rice produced in California and Asia, said the AP.

Arsenic can be toxic and carcinogenic. Ongoing arsenic exposure can, at first, lead to gastrointestinal problems and skin discoloration or lesions. Long-term exposure—described by the World Health Organization (WHO) as between five to 20 years—could increase risks for cancers, high blood pressure, diabetes, and reproductive problems.

Drinking water is regularly tested for the heavy metal and guidelines do exist—10 micrograms per liter—but monitoring and regulation does not exist for rice and other foods, making it nearly impossible to determine the danger of the levels seen in both studies without federal guidance. Accuracy in water and rice arsenic levels are also difficult to compare since standards for drinking water might need to be more stringent and people tend to drink more water than consume rice, the AP noted.

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan joined with Consumer Reports in seeking federal standards, especially for baby food. Both Madigan and Consumer Reports urged parents to limit how much of the grain they feed their children, said the AP.

Last year we wrote that rice may pose an arsenic risk for expectant mothers and may also pose risks to their developing fetuses, which can prompt premature births, according to research at the time. The study found that pregnant women who regularly consume rice may be at increased risks for consuming arsenic and that pregnant women who ate rice in the two-day period prior to having their urine analyzed tested with a median level of the dangerous heavy metal that was 56% higher than women who had not consumed rice during that time.

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