FDA Releases Results of Arsenic Levels in Rice and Rice Products, Plans Risk Assessment

On September 6, 2013, FDA released the analytical results of approximately 1,100 new samples of rice and rice products as part of its effort to understand and manage possible arsenic-related risks associated with the consumption of these foods in the U.S. marketplace. These 1,100 new samples are in addition to the results of approximately 200 samples of rice and rice products that the FDA initially tested in September 2012.  Taken together, these approximately 1,300 samples comprise the largest data set available on arsenic in rice and rice products and provide a good foundation for FDA’s next step – conducting a risk assessment.

Why Should the FDA Study Arsenic Levels in Rice?

The FDA believes that long-term exposure to high levels of arsenic is associated with higher rates of skin, bladder and lung cancers, as well as heart disease. According to the FDA, arsenic is present in water, food, air, and soil from both natural and human sources, including arsenic-containing pesticides. The inorganic forms of arsenic are the forms that have been more closely associated with long-term health effects. While most crops don’t readily take up much arsenic from the ground, rice is different because it takes up arsenic from soil and water more readily than other grains. In addition, because arsenic is naturally found in the soil and water, it is absorbed by plants regardless of whether they are grown under conventional or organic farming practices. For example, the FDA is unaware of any data that shows a difference in the amount of arsenic found in organic rice versus non-organic rice.

As a result, the FDA has been testing for total arsenic (organic and inorganic) in a variety of foods, including juices and rice, since 1991, through its Total Diet Study program. Toxic elements, including arsenic, are also monitored by the FDA in selected foods (foreign imports and domestic) under their Toxic Elements program.

What Did the FDA’s Analysis Show?

The FDA’s analysis of the 1,300 samples found average levels of inorganic arsenic for the various rice and rice products of 0.1 to 7.2 micrograms per serving. These results do not reveal any long-term health effects, if any, these levels may have, nor do they tell what can be done to reduce these levels. The FDA, however, indicates it is conducting additional sampling to broaden its data on infant and toddler products.

Risk Assessment and Proposed Action

FDA is currently conducting a risk assessment to help manage any possible risks associated with the consumption arsenic in rice and rice products. One priority of the risk assessment will be to examine whether certain segments of the population are more susceptible or sensitive to the harmful effects of arsenic in food.

The risk assessment will be used by the FDA as a scientific basis for any proposed voluntary or mandatory arsenic limits or other steps necessary to reduce consumer exposure to arsenic in rice and rice products.  The FDA indicates that it plans to work with federal partners, industry organizations, the agricultural community, consumer groups and others to identify effective strategies. Acccording to the agency, any decisions on the proposed voluntary or mandatory limits or other steps, would occur following the completion of the risk assessment.

What Should Consumers Do in the Meantime?

The FDA recommends that all consumers eat a well-balanced diet for good nutrition and to minimize potential adverse consequences from consuming an excess of any one food. This is especially important for pregnant women, infants, and children. The agency suggest varying a diet by eating a variety of grains, such as wheat, barley, and oats.

The FDA recognizes that infants are often fed rice cereal as their first solid food because it is gluten-free and rarely causes allergic reactions. The agency recommends that parents follow the advice of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), but notes that, according to AAP, there is no medical evidence that rice cereal has any advantage over other cereal grains as a first solid food and infants would likely benefit from an array of grain cereals.

FDA’s Timetable

The FDA believes that the risk assessment will take several months to complete and will be made available for public comment following peer review. The FDA anticipates that it will publish the risk assessment sometime in 2014.