FDA to set new limit on arsenic in apple juice

After more than a year of public pressure from consumer advocates and concerned parents, the Food and Drug Administration said Friday that it will set a new limit on the level of arsenic allowed in apple juice, matching the threshold currently permitted in drinking water.

Any apple juice containing more than 10 parts per billion could face removal from the market and its manufacturers could risk legal action, the agency said. FDA officials emphasized that the agency has been monitoring arsenic levels in apple juice for decades, and that the overwhelming number of products on the market already meet such a standard.

“The FDA is committed to ensuring the safety of the American food supply and to doing what is necessary to protect public health,” FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg said in announcing the move. “We have been studying this issue comprehensively and, based on the agency’s data and analytical work, the FDA is confident in the overall safety of apple juice for children and adults.”

The issue gained national attention in September 2011 in the wake of a report on “The Dr. Oz Show,” in which host Mehmet Oz told viewers that various brands of apple juice tested by the show contained total arsenic levels that were too high. The FDA chided Oz at the time for not drawing a distinction between organic and inorganic arsenic. Both forms can occur naturally throughout the environment, but only the inorganic form is a known carcinogen.

“As we have previously advised you, the results from total arsenic tests CANNOT be used to determine whether a food is unsafe because of its arsenic content,” Don L. Zink, an FDA senior science adviser, wrote to producers of the program before the episode aired. “The FDA believes that it would be irresponsible and misleading for The Dr. Oz Show to suggest that apple juice contains unsafe amounts of arsenic based solely on tests for total arsenic.”

Months later, Consumer Reports published the results of its own study, in which dozens of samples of apple and grape juices from stores in the Northeast showed elevated levels of the toxic form of arsenic. Those findings led Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, to pressure the FDA to lower acceptable arsenic levels in foods. Just last week, the group wrote to the agency about its “deep concern” over the delay in putting new standards in place.

Urvashi Rangan, director of consumer safety and sustainability for Consumers Union, said in a statement Friday that the proposed 10 parts per billion level for apple juice “is a reasonable first step in protecting consumers from unnecessary exposure to arsenic. It also offers an important enforcement and accountability tool for regulators and a key benchmark for apple juice manufacturers.”

The agency said Friday that it based its standard of 10 parts per billion on lifetime exposure; there is widespread agreement that drinking small amounts doesn’t pose harm. Long-term exposure to inorganic arsenic has been associated with increased cancer risk, developmental irregularities, cardiovascular disease and other health problems.

“We believe that this action level will keep any apple juice that may have more inorganic arsenic than that out of the marketplace,” the FDA’s top food safety official, Michael R. Taylor, wrote on an agency blog Friday.

The Juice Products Association, which represents the juice processing industry, said it would “carefully evaluate” the FDA’s new standard and reiterated that the agency’s own sampling tests have shown the vast majority of juices to have arsenic levels well within the proposed limits.

“Apple juice producers, as well as the FDA, want people to know they can be confident that apple juice is safe,” Rick Cristol, the association’s president, said in a statement, adding that processors routinely test their products to ensure they meet federal safety standards.

Questions of arsenic aside, the American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended that parents should encourage children to eat whole fruit instead of sugar-laden juices, saying that “it is not necessary to offer children any juice to have a well-balanced, healthy diet.” The group has said infants shouldn’t drink fruit juice at all, and children under 6 should drink only limited amounts.

The FDA will accept public comments on the newly proposed standard for 60 days. Meanwhile, the agency continues to weigh whether to put similar limits in place for arsenic in rice, which some studies have shown can contain alarmingly high concentrations of the contaminant.

Brady Dennis is a national reporter for The Washington Post, focusing on food and drug issues.

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