FDA urged to set standards for arsenic in rice

Associated Press Modified: September 19, 2012 at 4:01 pm •  Published: September 19, 2012
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WASHINGTON (AP) — The Food and Drug Administration may consider new standards for the levels of arsenic in rice as consumer groups are calling for federal guidance on how much of the carcinogen can be present in food.

So far, FDA officials say they have found no evidence that suggests rice is unsafe to eat. The agency has studied the issue for decades but is in the middle of conducting a new study of 1,200 samples of grocery-store rice products — short and long-grain rice, adult and baby cereals, drinks and even rice cakes — to measure arsenic levels.

Rice is thought to have arsenic in higher levels than most other foods because it is grown in water on the ground, optimal conditions for the contaminant to be absorbed in the rice. There are no federal standards for how much arsenic is allowed in food.

Arsenic is naturally present in water, air, food and soil in two forms, organic and inorganic. According to the FDA, organic arsenic passes through the body quickly and is essentially harmless. Inorganic arsenic — the type found in some pesticides and insecticides — can be toxic and may pose a cancer risk if consumed at high levels or over a long period.

How much organic and inorganic arsenic rice eaters are consuming, and whether those levels are dangerous, still remains to be seen.

FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg says consumers shouldn't stop eating rice, though she does encourage a diverse diet just in case.

"Our advice right now is that consumers should continue to eat a balanced diet that includes a wide variety of grains — not only for good nutrition but also to minimize any potential consequences from consuming any one particular food," she said.

The agency on Wednesday released 200 of an expected 1,200 samples after the magazine Consumer Reports released its own study and called for federal standards for arsenic in rice. The FDA will not complete its study until the end of the year, Hamburg said, and cannot draw any conclusions from the results until then.

Both studies show relatively similar levels of arsenic in rice. The FDA's analysis, including 200 samples, showed average levels of 3.5 to 6.7 micrograms of inorganic arsenic per serving. Consumer Reports, with 223 samples, found levels up to 8.7 micrograms. That is roughly equivalent to one gram of arsenic in 115,000 servings of rice.

It is almost impossible to say how dangerous these levels are without a benchmark from the federal government. Consumer Reports uses New Jersey's drinking water standard — a maximum of 5 micrograms in a liter of water — as comparison because it is one of the strictest in the country. But it is unclear how accurate it is to compare arsenic levels in water and arsenic levels in rice — most people consume more water than rice, so drinking water standards may need to be tougher.

It is because of this uncertainty that consumer groups have urged the FDA to set a standard.

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