By Jennifer Iscol and Vic Dolcourt
Additional articles in our special report on rice in arsenic:
Arsenic in Rice: Survey of Gluten-Free Manufacturers
Arsenic in the Gluten-Free Diet: Facts and Tips
The issue of arsenic in rice is a growing concern for people who are restricted to a gluten-free diet for medical reasons, and to other segments of the population, including pregnant women, infants and children. Inorganic arsenic is a known carcinogen, and recent studies indicate that long-term dietary exposure poses a health risk. Consumer advocates are calling on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to set standards for arsenic in food. We provide a brief overview of actions by regulatory agencies, consumer advocates, rice growers, food manufacturers and academics to offer a snapshot of who is doing what – and what remains to be done.
The Food and Drug Administration
Arsenic in food is not regulated in the United States (arsenic in drinking water is regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency). The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is studying the issue, but has not proposed any regulation of arsenic in rice. In September 2013, the FDA released the results of arsenic testing of 1,300 samples of rice and rice products, which the agency says will provide a foundation for its work going forward. The FDA has been using the test data it collected to conduct a risk assessment, which it planned to release by 2014; as of this writing, the risk assessment has not been released.
Although it is collecting data and assessing health risks, the FDA has not directly addressed urgent calls by consumer advocates to regulate arsenic in foods. The agency’s position is that “the amount of detectable arsenic is too low in the rice and rice product samples to cause any immediate or short-term adverse health effect.” [emphasis added] The FDA is now turning its attention to potential long-term risks, and its forthcoming risk assessment will play a role. For now, the FDA recommends that consumers, including pregnant women, infants and children, eat a variety of grains as part of a well-balanced diet (the FDA did not mention consumers on a gluten-free diet in this context).
The only food for which the FDA has proposed guidelines on arsenic levels is apple juice. After a flurry of media reports over arsenic in apple juice, in July 2013 the FDA proposed an “action level” for arsenic in apple juice of 10 ppb (parts per billion), the same level the EPA sets for drinking water. However, the FDA’s efforts were criticized in an article by Consumer Reports as insufficient to protect children from arsenic in apple juice and other fruit juices.
While the Environmental Protection Agency regulates arsenic in water, not food, its work provides useful data and resources for addressing the issue of arsenic in food. The EPA’s public health goal for arsenic in drinking water is zero. According to the EPA, it “sets public health goals at zero for all known carcinogens for which there is no dose considered safe.” However, the EPA needs an “enforceable regulation,” so it set the limit for total (inorganic and organic) arsenic in drinking water at 10 ppb (0.010 mg/L), as close to the health goal as possible.
The United Nations and the European Union
The global debate on setting standards for arsenic in rice is characterized by a regulatory tug-of-war between health interests and trade interests. The United Nations and the European Union are grappling with the issue of arsenic in rice, but have not finalized standards. Last July, the Codex Alimentarius Commission of the United Nations (known as Codex for short), proposed a maximum level of inorganic arsenic in white rice of 200 ppb.
Codex sets international food standards, guidelines and codes of practice to support the safety, quality and fairness of international food trade, but its recommendations are not binding on member governments. Unable to agree on a proposed level for brown rice at the same meeting last year (a limit of 400 ppb was discussed but not approved as a proposal), Codex will take up the issue this month at a meeting in India.
The European Union, commenting on the limits for arsenic proposed by Codex, stated that it could support the limit for arsenic in white rice (200 ppb). However, the EU also stated that the “Maximum Level” discussed for brown rice (400 ppb) is higher than it needs to be, and that 250 ppb is achievable.
The limit proposed by Codex for arsenic in white rice is often misinterpreted as being primarily a safety level, but it is actually a “Maximum Level,” which in Codex terms is the lowest level that does not present an “unjustified barrier to international trade.” Thus, the level of 200 ppb was selected because most white rice samples collected in 10 countries in Europe, North America and Asia were already below that limit, making the limit feasible to enforce. Andrew Meharg, professor of biological sciences at Queens University Belfast, criticized this approach to regulating arsenic in rice, arguing that if the standard is not based primarily on safety, “[i]t gives no incentive to change agricultural practices or processing, and it justifies the status quo.”
Consumer Reports, the monthly magazine published by the nonprofit Consumers Union, has been a major actor in researching the issue of arsenic in food, testing products for arsenic, drawing the public’s attention to the topic, recommending ways for consumers to protect their health, and calling on the FDA to set standards. Consumer Reports has undertaken extensive research and published articles that continue to be primary references for advocacy efforts and consumers seeking to protect their health: “Arsenic in Your Food: Our findings show a real need for federal standards for this toxin” (November 2012) and “How Much Arsenic is in Your Rice” (November 2014). Unlike the FDA, which released arsenic test results for categories of food without identifying brand and product names, Consumer Reports published test results with the brand names of specific products.
Long-term studies on the health effects of dietary arsenic exposure are just beginning in the United States. In 2011, a study led by Dartmouth College epidemiologist Margaret Karagas, PhD, found that rice was a significant source of arsenic exposure for pregnant women. According to Consumer Reports, the Dartmouth study “indicated [that] consuming slightly more than a half-cup of cooked rice per day resulted in a significant increase in urinary arsenic levels, comparable to the effects of drinking a liter of water containing the federal maximum of 10 ppb arsenic.”
Brian Jackson, PhD, director of the Trace Metal Analysis Core Facility at Dartmouth, led a 2011 study that found that products containing organic brown rice syrup, including infant formulas and energy bars, contained high levels of inorganic arsenic. The study authors concluded that there is “an urgent need for regulatory limits” on arsenic in food.
A 2012 Dartmouth study led by Matthew A. Davis, PhD, suggested that rice consumption is a potential source of arsenic exposure in U.S. children. Dartmouth is now leading efforts to study arsenic in food and recently received two multimillion dollar grants. The university also offers a variety of consumer resources, tips and fact sheets on topics such as arsenic in brown rice syrup and infant formulas.
Queens University Belfast
Andrew Meharg, PhD, professor of biological sciences at Queens University Belfast and a leading researcher in food and water safety, believes that the proposed Codex standard is not stringent enough. He proposed an upper limit of 100 ppb of arsenic in foods for adults and 50 ppb in foods for infants and children. Commenting for this article, Professor Meharg observed, “As it has emerged that rice is a dominant source of inorganic arsenic, a human carcinogen, into the diet, those who eat a lot of rice, such as those who suffer gluten intolerance, should think about diversifying away from the rice-based products that dominate the wheat/barley alternatives market.”
Professor Meharg described the failure to regulate inorganic arsenic in food as “unsustainable” and recently advocated for strict governmental standards in an article titled “High levels of arsenic in rice: why isn’t it regulated in our food?” Professor Meharg also advocates for measures to reduce arsenic contamination of drinking water in Bangladesh and other parts of the world, and published the book Venomous Earth on the topic.
Tricia Thompson, MS, RD, who founded Gluten-Free Watchdog to test the gluten content of packaged foods, has begun testing gluten-free foods for arsenic. The arsenic testing is conducted at Dartmouth. Gluten-Free Watchdog released the arsenic testing results of five popular gluten-free cereals for arsenic in February (General Mills Rice Chex, Kellogg’s Rice Krispies, Erewhon Cocoa Crispy, Enjoy Life Foods Perky’s Crunchy Rice, and Cream of Rice), and plans to test gluten-free pasta, rice flour and rice-based baking mixes next. Test results are available to subscribers, who pay $4.99 per month. The company relies on its subscribers to support the cost of testing, and has indicated that its ability to test more products for arsenic is directly linked to the size of its subscriber base.
Environmental Working Group
The Environmental Working Group (EWG), a consumer advocacy organization, has been critical of the FDA’s stance on arsenic in rice and recommends that consumers limit rice consumption and processed food that contains rice in any form, including rice syrup and rice bran. EWG urges consumers to “shop vigilantly,” by choosing foods that reduce their exposure to arsenic. EWG, which maintains a searchable database that scores food based on its safety, nutrition and other factors, flags rice and rice-based ingredients for their potential arsenic content. According to EWG, “All the arsenic in your diet adds to your lifetime risk of developing cancer.”
The Rice Industry
The rice industry, represented by the USA Rice Federation, is a formidable stakeholder in the FDA’s regulatory process. The USA Rice Federation is tracking the issue closely and is involved in research and analysis. The industry group’s position is that current rice consumption habits in the United States are safe for everyone, and calls the science behind Consumer Reports’ work on the topic “questionable.” The group stated that media stories are “unnecessarily increasing public concern.” The USA Rice Federation aligns with the FDA’s stance on rice safety, stating, “Arsenic levels found in rice represent no immediate health concern.”
The USA Rice Federation continues to promote the benefits of infant rice cereal. However, the FDA stated “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.”
Lundberg Family Farms, a prominent California rice grower, has taken a proactive and participatory stance on the subject of arsenic in rice. Lundberg maintains extensive and updated online resources on the topic, publishes the results of its arsenic testing, engages with farmers, academics and regulators, and has committed to transparency. For example, while the FDA is still conducting its risk assessment and has not offered guidelines to growers and manufacturers, Lundberg says it is using the standard proposed by Codex, “as an independent, evidence-based guideline by which to judge the safety of our products,” and indicated that on average its products test at below half that limit.
What is Achievable Today
In theory, if the arsenic standards for rice are set very stringently, then only a small amount of rice will meet those standards. Based on the assessment of its experts, Consumer Reports advocates an arsenic upper limit of 120 ppb for all forms of rice – white, brown and brown rice syrup. In an article published in the NIH peer-reviewed journal Environmental Health Perspectives, Michael Crupain, MD, MPH, director of Consumer Reports’ Food Safety and Sustainability Center, says data from the FDA and Consumer Reports indicates that almost 90% of white rice but only 28% of brown rice in the United States could meet the 120 ppb standard.
The agricultural challenge of reducing arsenic levels in rice is the subject of an increasing amount of research. In an April 2014 New York Times blog post, “The Trouble with Rice,” author Deborah Blum reviewed efforts to find ways to grow, breed or engineer rice to reduce its uptake of metallic compounds. In the short term, however, a disproportionate share of the burden is on consumers to change their consumption habits if they want to reduce their risk of exposure.
A Shared Responsibility to Tackle This Problem – What’s Next?
Arsenic occurs naturally in soil, air and water. No amount of regulation or testing is going to make it disappear from our food and water supply. It’s a complex issue that is important to the health of our gluten-free community members. Every actor on this stage has a shared responsibility. Our foundation will continue to advocate for steps like these:
Governments and international organizations: Devote sufficient resources to research the issue and enact appropriately strict regulations in a timely manner
Rice growers: Stay abreast of research on ways to reduce arsenic in crops, make economically feasible efforts to improve safety, and maintain transparency
Manufacturers: Take the time to fully understand the issue, source ingredients from regions with lower inorganic arsenic levels, commit resources to testing rice ingredients or finished products, offer products with a diversity of grains and starches, and maintain transparency
Consumers: Educate yourself, support organizations and institutions that advocate on your behalf like those described in this article, support manufacturers that respond to our Company Survey on Gluten-Free Products or otherwise maintain transparency, and consider steps we recommend to reduce your dietary arsenic, such as those in Arsenic in the Gluten-Free Diet: Facts and Tips.
According to rice testing results by the FDA and Consumer Reports, choosing brown basmati will minimize arsenic if you prefer brown rice.