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FDA OKs Arsenic Levels in Rice; Critics Not Convinced

Arsenic in rice is prevalent enough around the world that the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations are trying to reach an international consensus on setting maximum limits and deciding whether those limits should apply only to inorganic arsenic or to the combined rates for both forms of arsenic.

Last year, arsenic levels in food attracted the attention of several House Democrats. Henry A. Waxman, ranking Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Diana DeGette, ranking Democrat on the panel’s oversight subcommittee, went so far as to request that several food companies provide information on what steps they were taking to reduce inorganic arsenic levels in their rice products.

Deborah Willenborg, spokeswoman for the USA Rice Federation, said advocates for FDA action should pay attention to the difficulty the international organizations face in gathering reliable information on which to base arsenic restrictions.

“At this time it would be premature to establish limits since, as FDA has said, they must complete their risk assessment before such a decision can be made,” Willenborg said via email.

“Globally, we don’t know what the levels are in rice from various countries. We don’t know how and to what extent the levels can be lowered, or if it can be done without disrupting a major staple in the food supply of the world,” she added.

The federation, which represents rice growers, millers and retailers, will continue to work with the FDA on ways to reduce arsenic rates. The industry is conducting its own studies, with some results due in 2014.

On Sept. 6, the FDA released results for inorganic arsenic in 1,300 rice products it tested and concluded that the inorganic arsenic levels are not high enough for people to stop eating rice.

The highest-scoring product, brown rice syrup, registered inorganic arsenic levels of 7 micrograms or 7 parts per billion. The maximum level for water processed by water treatment plants is 10 micrograms or 10 parts per billion.

Consumers Union and its parent organization, Consumer Reports, have differed with the FDA in the past over the pace of the agency’s deliberations on inorganic arsenic in food. Last year, Consumer Reports published results of its own lab tests that found high levels of arsenic and lead in fruit juices and rice. The popular “Dr. Oz Show” took up the issue and Consumers Union campaigned for federal action.

Reps. Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., and Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., said the reports raised concerns about whether the FDA would set federal limits on the toxic metals. Pallone introduced legislation, but it died in the 112th Congress. However, two months ago, the FDA proposed setting the inorganic arsenic limit for apple juice at the same level as water. The agency has extended the comment period through Nov. 12.

DeLauro said questions remain about the long-term effects of arsenic in rice. She did not indicate whether she would pursue legislation as a way to prod the FDA to faster action. Pallone’s office said the lawmaker may retool his arsenic and lead bill and file it by the end of this year.

While there is some dissatisfaction with the FDA’s approach to arsenic in food, Jerome Paulson said the agency is being responsible in its message about rice consumption, especially in the young.

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