Data from the Food and Drug Administration has found arsenic levels in rice and rice products comparable to those found by Consumer Reports in its own investigation. And the FDA found another surprising source of arsenic: beer, which sometimes uses rice as an ingredient.
● Arsenic in rice.
Consumer Reports’ statistical analysis of the FDA’s test results from more than 1,300 samples found that among types of white rice, the parboiled version tended to have the highest levels of inorganic arsenic, with an average of 114 parts per billion (ppb). Instant rice had the lowest, averaging 59 ppb. Also noteworthy: Medium-grain rice from California tended to have lower levels of inorganic arsenic than rice originating from other areas of the United States. Although inorganic arsenic is a known carcinogen, there are no federal limits for it in juice, rice or most other food.
As Consumer Reports continues to investigate arsenic in the food supply, new scientific studies add to the evidence that long-term dietary exposure to arsenic poses a health risk. Here’s an overview of some significant developments regarding arsenic in food in the past year:
In some cases, the inorganic arsenic levels that the FDA found in rice products were even higher than Consumer Reports’ test results from 2012. That was true for rice beverages that are used as a milk replacement, which underscores CR’s advice that children younger than 5 should not have rice drinks as part of a daily diet.
The FDA found elevated levels of arsenic in beer after testing 65 samples, all of which the agency says included some form of rice as an ingredient. The results showed that 10 of them contained inorganic arsenic levels that ranged from 15 ppb to 26 ppb, significantly more than the federal drinking-water limit of 10 ppb for total arsenic. The agency plans no further testing of beers.
Based on its full data, the FDA is “conducting a risk assessment as the next step in a process to help manage possible risks associated with the consumption of rice and rice products,” says Theresa Eisenmann, an FDA spokeswoman.
Recent scientific evidence suggests that those risks can be significant. Last July, researchers in the United Kingdom and India published a groundbreaking study providing the first evidence that frequently eating rice with high amounts of total arsenic can lead to genetic damage in cells that are associated with cancer.
● Test results for juices.
In a first step toward reducing Americans’ unnecessary exposure to arsenic in food, the FDA last year proposed an “action level” of 10 ppb for inorganic arsenic in apple juice. This provides a benchmark for juicemakers and an enforcement tool for regulators. The FDA stated that the 10 ppb guidance to industry “will help keep out of the food supply even the occasional lot of apple juice” containing arsenic above that level.
But the fact that most of the apple-juice samples that the FDA tested already had inorganic arsenic levels below 10 ppb is one reason Consumer Reports’ safety experts concluded that the agency’s proposed guidance doesn’t sufficiently protect public health. In written comments submitted to the FDA after thoroughly reviewing the rationale behind its proposal, CR’s experts urged the agency to set a tougher level that “creates an incentive for the marketplace to reduce levels of inorganic arsenic in apple juice and thereby reduce risk — not simply maintain the status quo.”
In calculating the risks of arsenic exposure from apple juice, the FDA also appears to have significantly underestimated how much juice children drink. A Consumer Reports survey of parents conduced in 2011 found that on the day before the survey, more than 25 percent of children younger than 6 consumed more than eight ounces of apple juice, which was the highest daily consumption estimate used by the FDA, and 12 percent drank 16 ounces or more.
Ever since the release of its test results for arsenic in juice in 2011, Consumer Reports has recommended setting a limit of 3 ppb of total arsenic for apple juice. If that is not immediately feasible, its experts say that it should be no higher than 4.4 ppb, which is the inorganic arsenic level the FDA used when calculating the risk it deems acceptable. They also urged the FDA to set action levels for other juices, such as pear and grape, where tests have found inorganic arsenic levels much higher than 10 ppb.
The FDA is reviewing the comments it has received to determine whether revisions are needed in its proposed guidance, according to Eisenmann. She says the agency is continuing to collect and test more juice samples for arsenic but cannot predict when it will publish those results.
For further guidance, go to www.ConsumerReports.org/Health, where more detailed information, including CR’s ratings of prescription drugs, treatments, hospitals and healthy-living products, is available to subscribers.