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The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) monitors hundreds of foods and beverages that make up the average American diet. The agency looks for substances that could be harmful to consumers, including industrial chemicals, heavy metals, pesticide residues and radiation contamination.
Those dietary staples include rice and rice products, foods that FDA has specifically tested for the presence of inorganic arsenic, a chemical that under some circumstances has been associated with long-term health effects.
The agency has analyzed nearly 200 samples of rice and rice products and is collecting about 1,000 more. Since rice is processed into many products, these samples include rice products such as cereals, rice beverages and rice cakes.
Arsenic levels can vary greatly from sample to sample, even within the same product. FDA’s testing of the initial samples found these average levels of inorganic arsenic in micrograms (one millionth of a gram):
- Rice (other than Basmati rice): 6.7 per 1 cup (cooked)
- Rice cakes: 5.4 per 2 cakes
- Rice beverages: 3.8 per 240 ml (some samples not tested for inorganic arsenic)
- Rice cereals: 3.5 per 1 cup
- Basmati rice: 3.5 per 1 cup cooked
Based on data and scientific literature available now, FDA is not recommending that consumers change their consumption of rice and rice products at this time, but that people eat a balanced diet containing a wide variety of grains.
Data collection is the critical first step in assessing long-term health risks and minimizing those risks.
“We understand that consumers are concerned about this matter. FDA is committed to ensuring that we understand the extent to which substances such as arsenic are present in our foods, what risks they may pose, whether these risks can be minimized, and to sharing what we know,” says FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D.
Once FDA has completed its analysis of about 1,200 rice products, the agency will analyze these results and determine whether or not to issue additional recommendations.
Arsenic is Found in the Environment
Arsenic is a chemical element distributed in the Earth’s crust. It is released from volcanoes and from the erosion of mineral deposits. It is found throughout the environment—in water, air and soil. For that reason, it is inevitably found in some foods and beverages.
Human activities also add arsenic to the environment. They include burning coal, oil, gasoline and wood, mining, and the use of arsenic compounds as pesticides, herbicides and wood preservatives.
FDA has been monitoring arsenic levels in rice for more than 20 years. Its analysis thus far does not show any evidence of a change in total arsenic levels. The change is that researchers are better able to measure whether those levels represent more or less toxic forms of arsenic.
Rice comes from all over the world and is grown very differently from region to region, which may greatly vary the levels of arsenic within the same kind of product. The larger sample that FDA is taking will cover the wide variety of rice types, geographical regions where rice is grown, and the wide range of foods that contain rice as an ingredient.
FDA expects to complete the additional collection and analysis of samples by the end of the year. The agency is paying particular attention to rice and rice products consumed by children, as well as consumers like Asian-Americans and those with celiac disease who may consumer higher levels of rice.
The Next Steps
After analyzing all samples and conducting a comprehensive assessment of potential health risks, FDA will evaluate strategies designed to limit arsenic exposure from rice and rice products.
The agency is working with other government agencies, industry, scientists, consumer groups and others to study the issue and assess risks.
“It is critical to not get ahead of the science,” says Michael R. Taylor, FDA’s deputy commissioner for foods. “The FDA's ongoing data collection and other assessments will give us a solid scientific basis for determining what steps are needed to reduce exposure to arsenic in rice and rice products.”
So what should a person who eats rice do in the meantime?
“Our advice right now is that consumers should continue to eat a balanced diet that includes a wide variety of grains – not only for only for good nutrition but also to minimize any potential consequences from consuming any one particular food,” says Hamburg.
This article appears on FDA's Consumer Updates page, which features the latest on all FDA-regulated products.
September 19, 2012