Questions & Answers: Arsenic in Rice and Rice Products
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Arsenic in Food
What is arsenic?
Arsenic is a chemical element present in the environment from both natural and human sources, including erosion of arsenic-containing rocks, volcanic eruptions, contamination from mining and smelting ores and previous or current use of arsenic-containing pesticides.
Are there different types of arsenic?
There are two general types of arsenic compounds in water, food, air and soil: organic and inorganic (these together are referred to as “total arsenic”). The inorganic forms of arsenic are the forms that have been more closely associated with long-term health effects.
How does arsenic get into foods? Do all foods have arsenic?
Arsenic is present in many foods, including grains, fruits and vegetables where it is present due to absorption from the soil and water. While most crops don’t readily take up much arsenic from the ground, rice is different because it takes up arsenic from soil and water more readily than other grains. In addition, some seafood contains high levels of organic arsenic.
Do organic foods have less arsenic than non-organic foods?
Because arsenic is naturally found in the soil and water, it is absorbed by plants regardless of whether they are grown under conventional or organic farming practices. The FDA is unaware of any data that shows a difference in the amount of arsenic found in organic rice versus non-organic rice.
What are “rice products”?
Rice products are foods that contain rice grains or rice-derived ingredients, such as brown rice syrup.
What FDA is Doing About Arsenic in Rice
What are the health risks associated with arsenic exposure?
Long-term exposure to high levels of arsenic is associated with higher rates of skin, bladder and lung cancers, as well as heart disease. The FDA is currently examining these and other long-term effects.
Does FDA test for arsenic in foods?
Yes, the FDA has been testing for total arsenic in a variety of foods, including rice and juices, through its Total Diet Study program, since 1991. The agency also monitors toxic elements, including arsenic, in selected domestic and imported foods under the Toxic Elements Program, including those that children are likely to eat or drink, such as juices.
What has FDA done about arsenic in rice?
FDA has increased its testing of rice and rice products to determine the level and types of arsenic found in these products as part of the comprehensive, science-based and risk-based approach the agency takes to minimize risks in the food supply from contaminants.
On September 6, 2013, FDA released the results of approximately 1,300 samples of rice and rice products examined for the presence of arsenic. The announcement followed the release in September 2012 of a preliminary set of analytical results of nearly 200 samples of rice products tested for arsenic. Taken together, these approximately 1,300 samples comprise the largest data set available on arsenic in rice and rice products and provide a strong foundation for FDA’s work going forward. FDA is conducting a risk assessment as the next step in a process to help manage possible risks associated with the consumption of rice and rice products.
The agency is also working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the World Health Organization (WHO), as well as with industry scientists and others who can help us further study the issue, and assess the risks associated with the consumption of rice and rice products.
We have met with industry organizations, rice companies, and consumer groups to help us better understand the production, manufacturing and sourcing of rice and other information relative to arsenic in rice and rice products.
The FDA will continue to work on this issue as part of our role in ensuring the safety of the food supply, and we will continue to keep the public informed of what we are finding and doing.
What does FDA’s data on rice and rice products show?
FDA’s analysis of its approximately 1,300 samples found average levels of inorganic arsenic for the various rice and rice products of 0.1 to 7.2 micrograms of inorganic arsenic per serving. Serving sizes varied depending on the rice product. For example, one serving of non-Basmati rice is equal to one cup cooked, whereas one serving of a rice-based snack bar may contain only ¼ cup of rice.
The approximately 1,300 analytical results do not tell us what long-term health effect, if any, these levels may have, nor do they tell us what can be done to reduce these levels. The data collection and analysis is the first step in a major effort to understand the overall safety of consumption of rice and rice products in the United States.
To better understand the long-term risks, the FDA is conducting a risk assessment as the next step in its efforts to manage the risks associated with the consumption of rice and rice products.
We take seriously our responsibility to monitor and minimize risks from chemical contaminants, including arsenic.
What have you been able to tell about the rice samples based on the state or country they are from?
The goal of our study was to provide an accurate measure of the average levels of arsenic in a wide range of rice varieties and rice products in the U.S. market, rather than to make state or country comparisons. To arrive at any valid comparison, one would first have to compare the same type of rice (e.g., white, jasmine, brown), and for most types of rice there are too few samples to support such comparisons. Further, numerous other factors can influence the arsenic concentration in rice, including soil composition, brands of fertilizer used, seasonal variability, and growing practices, particularly water use practices. For these reasons, though we provide our analytical results in their entirety, we caution against making any state-to-state or country-to-country comparisons.
What additional steps is FDA taking with respect to arsenic in rice?
FDA is conducting a risk assessment to help manage any possible risk associated with the consumption of rice and rice products. The draft risk assessment will be made available for public comment following peer review.
Among the priorities of the risk assessment, FDA has charged a team to examine whether certain segments of the population are more susceptible (or sensitive) than others to the harmful effects of arsenic in food. The work of this team will inform the risk assessment’s design.
Building on the analytical results obtained from the samples tested, the risk assessment will provide a scientific basis for any proposed voluntary or mandatory limits or other steps that may be needed to reduce consumer exposure to arsenic in rice and rice products.
Additionally, as FDA turns its attention to mitigation strategies, if needed, the agency plans to work with its federal partners, industry organizations, the agricultural community, consumer groups and others to identify effective strategies to minimize possible risks associated with arsenic in rice and rice products.
Will FDA set limits for arsenic in rice and rice products?
The FDA will evaluate the full range of measures that may be appropriate for the agency and/or its federal partners to take to minimize, if necessary, possible risks associated with arsenic in rice and rice products. Any decisions on proposed voluntary or mandatory limits or other steps, if necessary, would occur following the completion of the risk assessment.
When will FDA be done with its risk assessment?
The risk assessment will take several months to complete and will be made available for public comment following peer review. FDA anticipates that it will release the risk assessment in 2014.
Advice for Consumers
What is FDA recommending to consumers about eating rice and rice products?
Based on the currently available data and scientific literature, FDA’s advice for consumers, including pregnant women, is to eat a well-balanced diet for good nutrition and to minimize potential adverse consequences from consuming an excess of any one food. Additionally, parents should follow the advice of the American Academy of Pediatrics and feed their infants and toddlers a variety of grains as part of a well-balanced diet.
Is rice safe to eat? Is it safe for children to eat?
Rice is an important staple for many people, and the arsenic levels that FDA found in the samples it evaluated were too low to cause any immediate or short-term adverse health effects. All consumers, including pregnant women, infants and children, are encouraged to eat a well-balanced diet for good nutrition and to minimize potential adverse consequences from consuming an excess of any one food.
What about rice cereals eaten by infants?
Infant rice cereal has been used for many years because it is gluten-free and rarely causes allergic reactions. Parents should follow the advice of the American Academy of Pediatrics and feed their infants and toddlers a variety of grains as part of a well-balanced diet.
The FDA recognizes that children routinely eat rice products and that by tradition many infants are fed rice cereal as their first solid food. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, 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.
Many infants with esophageal reflux tendencies rely on infant rice cereal as it is relatively easy to keep down. What does FDA recommend for these infants instead of rice?
Wheat, barley and other grain-based infant cereals also readily absorb liquid and are similarly effective for infants with esophageal reflux tendencies. Parents of such infants may wish to consult with their child’s pediatrician on which infant cereals would best meet their child’s needs.
Can the consumer do anything to offset or reduce the arsenic in rice?
The FDA recommends that consumers eat a well-balanced diet that includes a variety of grains for good nutrition and to minimize potential adverse consequences from consuming an excess of any one particular food. Published studies and ongoing FDA research indicate that cooking rice in excess volumes of water, five to six times that of the rice, and draining the excess water, can reduce up to roughly half of the arsenic content. The FDA recognizes that consumers do not typically prepare rice in this manner, similar to preparing pasta, and some may not wish to do so. Further, such preparation may well lower the nutritional value of the rice (i.e., the folic acid content of fortified rice and some B vitamins). The agency is not aware of any studies that have determined the net benefit of reducing the arsenic at the expense of the nutrients also removed.