Saturday, September 22, 2012

Arsenic and Rice

I offer a summary and some links on the issue of arsenic levels in rice -  my students in our Food Law & Policy course raised it in class this week, and the issue has been all over the news.

Consumer Reports issued a study, Arsenic in your food: Our findings show a real need for federal standards for this toxin (Nov. 2012).  The study reported "worrisome" levels of arsenic in rice and called upon FDA to take action through additional monitoring, testing, and the establishment of a limit on the amount permissible.

The FDA set up an arsenic in rice website with information for consumers on its monitoring activities and preliminary testing results. FDA also issued a press release stating their full data collection would be completed by the end of the by end of 2012, and that the FDA would be prioritizing "further assessment to provide scientific basis for additional recommendations."  FDA stated that '[b]ased on the currently available data and scientific literature the FDA does not have an adequate scientific basis to recommend changes by consumers regarding their consumption of rice and rice products."  They emphasized the healthy qualities of rice.  Nevertheless, they indicated that "the FDA data is consistent with results that Consumer Reports published. . ."

Part of the FDA analysis will include consideration that "[t]here are many different types of rice and rice products that are grown in different areas and under different conditions. Further analysis is needed to assess how these variations may affect the results."

Two of the trends described by the Consumer Reports study indicated that "[w]hite rice grown in Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, and Texas, which account for 76 percent of domestic rice, generally had higher levels of total arsenic and inorganic arsenic in our tests than rice samples from elsewhere." However, "[w]ithin any single brand of rice we tested, the average total and inorganic arsenic levels were always higher for brown rice than for white." The Consumer Reports website presents all of their testing data, by product. Some suggestions for minimizing exposure, including rinsing rice before cooking were offered.

This issue has many consumers alarmed.  Rice is a staple in many baby food products;  the increasing number of gluten intolerant people look to rice as an important grain crop; and brown rice, in particular, is considered a particularly healthy food. But, arsenic is a Group 1 carcinogen.

The issue has also sounded the alarm bells within the rice industry.  A robust website, Arsenic Facts with a variety of different types of information for consumers is available, affirming the safety of rice as an important part of our diet.  There are video clips from medical and health professionals, links to scientific tests, and information about naturally occurring arsenic at trace levels that are not dangerous.  Th site seeks to reassure nervous consumers and promises to work closely with FDA.

This is particularly a significant issue in Arkansas. According to the Arkansas Rice Federation, "[t]he annual Arkansas rice crop produces nearly 10 billion pounds of rice, generates more than $1 billion in economic activity and accounts for thousands of jobs, as well as providing habitat for wetlands-dependent wildlife species, such as ducks, geese, cranes and others." Arkansas Governor Beebe recently declared September to be Arkansas Rice Month.

This issue will be playing out over the next months as FDA continues its analysis and consumers continue to raise questions.  In addition, however, it is also my hope that we use this issue to demand a more holistic assessment of agricultural production methods - an assessment that takes into account the full spectrum of considerations and not just product-specific economic justifications.  I personally prefer short blog posts, so I will leave that as my teaser for my next post -  when I consider the red flags that were ignored regarding the use of arsenic-based pesticides and growth promotants, when scientists were aware of a potential problem.


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