Earlier this month, the Food and Drug Administration assured consumers they could continue to eat rice cakes, rice pasta, brown rice dishes and other popular products in moderation, with no immediate effects from arsenic in the grain.
Agency officials offered one caution, though, suggesting that parents of infants and toddlers vary the grains in their children’s diets and limit servings of rice cereal.
But critics of the agency say it buried a more significant message: The FDA is still working on the question of whether lifelong consumption of arsenic in rice raises potential health threats such as cancer. The agency estimates it will have preliminary assessments ready sometime in 2014.
“The fact that the message they led with is good news, there is no short-term problem, is just stating the obvious,” said Urvashi Rangan, Consumers Union’s director of consumer safety and sustainability.
Although Consumers Union praised the FDA for its message of moderation to rice eaters, Rangan said the agency should have stressed that test results from 1,300 samples over two years showed inorganic arsenic “is present at varying and sometimes very high levels in the products.” That means “those things come with risks,” she said. “The question is, how much risk we are willing to take on, especially for people who consume a lot of these things?”
Jenny Levin, public health advocate for the consumer advocacy group U.S. PIRG, said the FDA’s initial test result “only affirms the concerns we’ve had in the public health community about the widespread exposure to potentially harmful levels of arsenic in rice.”
As an advocate, Levin said, the results show a “need to put in place some guidance, whether it is 10 parts per billion like it is for water. That seems reasonable. As a public health advocate, I would put it lower, at 5 parts per billion.”
But she acknowledged that an advocate’s approach “is really not FDA’s style. They like to be able to draw a direct link between a health impact and an environmental cause or a contaminant in our food supply.”
The agency says it is working methodically to do so with rice.
“The FDA has been monitoring arsenic levels in rice for more than 20 years and has seen no evidence of change in levels of total arsenic in rice. This new data is the latest of the FDA’s ongoing efforts to understand and manage possible arsenic-related risks associated with the consumption of these foods in the U.S. marketplace,” according to an FDA press release.
There are two types of arsenic — organic, or naturally occurring, and inorganic. Organic arsenic is generally considered less toxic. Inorganic arsenic, a byproduct of mining, smelting, pesticides and other industrial uses, is classified as a carcinogen and is viewed as more toxic because it accumulates in tissues and organs.
Rice is a main food staple for about half the world’s population and the second-most-consumed food grain after wheat, according to the Economic Research Service, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Rice is also a significant agricultural export for the United States. Farmers in six states — Arkansas, California, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri and Texas — grow the nation’s rice crop. Thailand, Vietnam and India are the main foreign suppliers to the United States.