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Consumer Reports’ Boogeyman of the Month

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Is arsenic in rice really a danger, as Consumer Reports says, or is their study just another boogeyman invented to scare people? There is not a federally established standard for acceptable levels of arsenic in food, but that didn't stop Consumer Reports from saying the levels they found were worrisome, and suggesting that consumers cut back on their rice consumption.

This is what we know about Consumer Reports’ just unveiled Boogeyman of the Month.

It is efficient. A teaspoon deftly delivered in a spot of tea will take you out on the spot. In miniscule amounts, it has been linked to cancer.

It’s everywhere – in the air, water and soil. In the 19th century, it was used as medicine and today, as a wood preservative and as a pesticide. Ten to 20 milligrams of total arsenic exists in our bodies at any given time. In fact, it’s the 12th most common element in the human body.

It’s also in food in varying amounts measured in micrograms (1 millionth of a gram). In very nutritious food at that, like apple juice and grape juice.

And for that, it got the attention of Consumer Reports.

If you haven’t guessed by the now, Consumer Reports’ latest scare tactic is arsenic in rice. According to its study, its inorganic form appears in rice at levels that are “worrisome.”

How they came to this conclusion is puzzling as there is no current standard for acceptable levels of arsenic in food. The Food and Drug Administration is working on it, and should have some data we can sink our teeth into by the end of the year.

This lack of information, however, did not stop Consumer Reports from not only divining what it considered to be worrisome levels, but concluding that consumers should cut back on rice consumption.

The closest thing to a standard is an Environmental Protection Agency standard that arsenic at any level below 10 parts per billion is generally safe. Consumer Reports decided to halve that standard to 5 parts per billion. Based on what? Was that the threshold at which it could find those worrisome levels?

The FDA just about called the Consumer Reports researchers non-scientists when its deputy commissioner commented on the Consumer Reports’ study, “It is critical to not get ahead of the science. The FDA’s ongoing data collection and other assessments will give us a solid scientific basis for determining what action levels and/or other steps are needed to reduce exposure to arsenic in rice and rice products.”

The USA Rice Federation rightly pointed out that rice is safe because nobody has gotten sick from eating it, which went right over the heads of almost everyone reporting on the issue.

Consumer Reports could have given balance to the study by considering the nutritional value of rice and backed off making recommendations until it knew more about what constituted dangerous levels. The national news media could have at least put up a fight. Instead, they rolled over. Between balance and the boogeyman, both chose the boogeyman.

As for me, pass the rice bowl please. I think I will have a second helping.

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