By Monica Eng, Tribune Newspapers
1:04 PM EDT, September 19, 2012
Many name-brand rice and rice products contain varying levels of carcinogenic arsenic, according to the results of separate sets of tests announced today by the U.S. Food and Drug Administrationand Consumer Reports.
In conjunction with the Consumer Reports tests, the Illinois attorney general’s office performed its own lab analysis on infant rice cereals, revealing “troubling levels of inorganic — or toxic — arsenic,” the office said.
Currently, there is no federal maximum level for arsenic in food. The findings have led Consumer Reports and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan to call on the FDA to set such limits, particularly in baby food, and to caution the public about eating large amounts of rice and feeding it to small children.
Two types of arsenic compounds are found in nature: organic and inorganic. Inorganic arsenic is classified as cancer-causing, while ongoing research explores the possibility that some organic arsenic may also pose risks.
The FDA, which is doing ongoing research into arsenic levels in rice, said it currently does not have “an adequate scientific basis to recommend changes” regarding rice or rice product consumption. But the agency said it will “prioritize further assessment” in order to make recommendations.
“The FDA is committed to ensuring that we understand the extent to which substances such as arsenic are present in our foods, what risks they may pose, whether these risks can be minimized, and to sharing what we know,” FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg said in a statement. “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 says its data, which found an average of 3.5 to 6.7 micrograms of inorganic arsenic in a single serving of rice or rice product, are consistent with the levels found in the Consumer Reports study.
The Consumer Reports data indicate that brown rice, which retains the outer bran, can carry higher levels of arsenic. It also suggests that rice from Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri and Texas generally shows higher levels of total and inorganic arsenic than rice samples from India, Thailand and California.
In the wake of the new reports, some American pediatricians said they would alter their advice for parents feeding their children.
“I think a prudent position for the next few months or years until the FDA standards (on arsenic) come out is that parents avoid rice or at least avoid any rice that comes from Texas, Louisiana or Missouri and when in doubt go with barley or oatmeal,” Dr. Phillip Landrigan, a professor of pediatrics at Mount Sinai Hospital School of Medicine, said today on CBS’ “This Morning.”
Dr. Frank Greer, a spokesman for the American Academy of Pediatrics and its former committee chairman on nutrition, was a little more conservative in his advice, noting that “we don’t really know what the arsenic content of food really means at this point.”
Still, he said the new studies would lead him to modify advice to parents about feeding rice to kids. Consumer Reports suggests limiting servings to children to a little more than a quarter-cup of uncooked rice a week.
“If I were a concerned parent, I would go with that,” Greer said, adding that the academy has also been “trying to move people away from the use of rice cereal for the first weaning food in general because it does not really provide that much nutrition.”
This morning Gerber Foods issued a statement saying “we decided to exclusively use California rice in the production of our rice-containing infant nutrition products … because California rice has the lowest naturally occurring arsenic levels for rice grown in the United States.”
Consumer Reports senior scientist Michael Hansen posited that the geographical differences may be linked to the historical use of lead arsenate as a pesticide in certain areas. He also noted the more recent use of chicken waste as a rice crop fertilizer. Recent studies have shown that feeding chickens arsenic for growth promotion and feed efficiency can leave inorganic arsenic in their waste.
“The goal of our report is to inform — not alarm — consumers about the importance of reducing arsenic exposure and offer actions they can take moving forward, such as limiting their rice consumption,” said Urvashi Rangan, director of safety and sustainability at Consumer Reports. “Given what we now know about arsenic’s increasing role in contributing to multiple cancers and other serious health effects, the government needs to regulate arsenic in food. This includes setting standards and banning the practices that persistently deliver arsenic into our food and water supply.”
Madigan said her office became interested in testing for arsenic because of previous studies by Consumer Reports finding arsenic in apple juice. After testing a broad array of baby foods, they zeroed in on rice because of the arsenic levels they found.
“It was very surprising, and not just as an attorney general who is working to protect the people … but it's distressing as a parent,” Madigan said. “I mean almost all of us served rice cereal to our babies as their first solid food. And that's what really shocked me. You would have picked something else if you knew it had arsenic in it.”
Madigan called on the FDA to set limits for arsenic content in food.
“While we have a standard for the level of arsenic in water, we don't have it in food, whereas … the UK, Australia and China do,” she said. “So right now you really need the scientific community to come together and not just explain to people what this means in terms of long-term health implications but give us understanding and comfort on safe levels of rice to be eaten.”
The FDA says it hopes to complete its assessment of arsenic levels in rice by the end of the year in order to set science-based limits.
“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.”
As part of its study, Consumer Reports offered specific recommendations to reduce arsenic exposure. They include:
Limiting children to about a quarter-cup of uncooked rice per week and adults to a half-cup.
Rinsing raw rice thoroughly before cooking.
Cooking rice in a manner similar to pasta: using six cups of water per one cup of rice and pouring off the excess water after it’s cooked.
Clean vegetables, especially potato skins, thoroughly.
Limit consumption of other foods that can contain arsenic, including apple and grape juice.
Copyright © 2014 Chicago Tribune Company, LLC