Consumer Reports has urged the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to develop a standard for allowable levels of arsenic for rice, after its study found traces of the element in rice and rice product samples it tested. It also recommends that adults and children limit their consumption of rice and rice products (http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/arsenicinfood.htm).

The USA Rice Federation responded quickly to the study, saying rice’s reputation as a nutritious, healthy and safe food is well-established. “We are aware of concerns about the level of arsenic in food, but are not aware of any established studies directly connecting rice consumption and adverse health effects,” said Anne Banville, vice president, domestic promotion for the USA Rice Federation. “In fact, populations with high rice consumption are associated with less overall disease rates and with better health, and scientific studies show that people who eat rice have healthier diets.”

A statement from the FDA in response to the Consumer Reports study noted, “There is an absence of 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.”

In its inorganic form, arsenic is a human carcinogen. Its organic form is less toxic to humans. The USA Rice Federation noted that it is a naturally-occurring element in air, water, rocks and soil, and that all plant foods, including rice, take it up regardless of whether the farming method is conventional or organic.

Consumer Reports characterized the arsenic levels in the rice samples it tested as above acceptable levels, saying in the online article that rice is especially efficient in taking up arsenic from the soil. It said this ability is compounded by residual arsenic still in the soil from past agricultural applications.

A statement from the USA Rice Federation noted that the threshold Consumer Reports used for arsenic “simply doesn’t exist in federal law. It offers consumption advice without addressing all of the relevant public health issues that must be taken into account.”

There is no federal limit for arsenic in rice, but the Environmental Protection Agency considers arsenic in drinking water below 10 parts per billion of inorganic arsenic to be generally safe. Consumer Reports used a level twice as strict, 5 parts per billion, but there was a precedent at the state level. The state of New Jersey established 5 parts per billion of inorganic arsenic as its standard for drinking water.

Consumer Reports said that a single serving of some types of rice 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. An article on its Web site read, “We also discovered that some infant rice cereals, which are often a baby’s first solid food, had levels of inorganic arsenic at least five times more than has been found in alternatives such as oatmeal. Given our findings, we suggest limiting the consumption of rice products.”

This included limiting adults to two, one-fourth cup servings of whole rice per week.

A list of rice and rice products tested is also on the Consumer Reports Web site.

FDA is conducting arsenic studies in rice, and expects to conclude them by the end of the year. FDA released preliminary data from the study in September which found average levels of inorganic arsenic for various rice and rice products ranging from 3.5 to 6.7 micrograms of inorganic arsenic per serving, while the Consumer Reports study, which tested 223 samples, found up to 9.4 micrograms. A summary of the FDA’s 200 sample findings can be found at www.fda.gov.

Based on the 200 samples, FDA stated that it“does not have an adequate scientific basis to recommend changes by consumers regarding their consumption of rice and rice products.” http://www.fda.gov/NewsEvents/Newsroom/PressAnnouncements/ucm319972.htm

“It is critical to not get ahead of the science,” said FDA Deputy Commissioner for Foods Michael Taylor. “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.

“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.”

The Consumer Reports study was featured on the Today Show, Sept. 19, by investigative correspondent Jeff Rossen and was subsequently picked up by news organizations around the country. In 2011, Consumer Reports found arsenic in apple and grape juice, and urged FDA to consider establishing standards for both. FDA is reviewing that request.

The Consumer Reports study said that white rice grown in Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, and Texas generally had higher levels of total arsenic and inorganic arsenic in tests than rice samples from elsewhere. It also said that arsenic levels were higher in brown rice than in white rice, and people who ate rice had arsenic levels that were 44 percent greater that those who had not.

In a conference call, Banville noted that the data for the latter claim “measured arsenic in urine samples, which is the best measure of recent arsenic exposure. But that’s the point, most of the arsenic is excreted, not absorbed. The body flushes it out of its system. The Center for Disease Control has stated that finding a measurable amount of the different forms of arsenic in urine does not mean that the levels of arsenic cause an adverse health effect. The really important point is that no reported harm has come to these people from their rice consumption. The article conveniently ignores that.”

Banville said that any limits set for arsenic in rice products “should be the result of a carefully conducted risk assessment based on an adequate sample and well-constructed tests that balances any yet-to-be validated risks against years of sound research into rice’s many nutritional  benefits.”

Reece Langley, vice president, government affairs for the USA Rice Federation, says the industry “is working closely with researchers in the rice community as well as USDA-ARS, to look at methods to mitigate the amount of arsenic taken up by rice, through variety development and other agronomic practices.”

No arsenical pesticides are used when growing U.S. rice. For more information on arsenic, please visit www.arsenicfacts.usarice.com.