FDA Urged by Consumer Advocates to Set Standards for Arsenic in Rice

A Consumer Reports study of 223 rice and rice products finding that the average serving of rice contained up to 8.7 micrograms of inorganic arsenic has prompted consumer food advocacy groups to urge the FDA to set standards on allowable levels of arsenic found in rice and rice products. Although citing that no evidence is available to suggest that rice is unsafe to eat, the agency is currently in the process of studying 1,200 samples of store-bought rice and rice products, including short and long-grain rice, cereals, and drinks to measure arsenic levels.

The Consumer Reports study also found that there was higher levels of arsenic in brown rice than white rice, possibly because of how the two types are processed. Additionally, rice produced in the southern United States had higher levels of arsenic than rice from California or imported from Asia.

Arsenic is naturally present in water, air, food, and soil in both organic and inorganic forms. Organic arsenic passes through the body quickly and is considered harmless. However, inorganic arsenic is toxic and poses a cancer risk if consumed at high levels or extended periods of time. Inorganic arsenic is found in some pesticides and insecticides.

The FDA released data on 200 of the 1,200 samples in its study, noting that the study will not be completed until year’s end and that the agency would not draw conclusions until the completion of the study. However, the agency noted that based on its preliminary review of rice and rice products, the results from Consumer Reports appear to be consistent with those the agency is observing in its initial testing. The FDA also stressed that there are many different types of rice and rice products from different parts of the world, grown very differently, and the conditions under which they are grown may vary the levels of arsenic from year to year, lot by lot.

The FDA was unaware of any data that differentiated the amount of arsenic found in organic rice versus non-organic rice. Arsenic is present naturally as well in soil and water; thus it is absorbed by plants regardless of whether they are grown under conventional or organic farming practices. 

Consumer Reports used New Jersey’s drinking water standard of a maximum 5 micrograms per liter of water as its touchpoint, because there is no federal benchmark. Although the state’s standard is one of the strictest in the country, it is still unclear whether the levels of arsenic in water and levels in rice should be set with the same standard, because people consume more water than rice.