Federal limits on arsenic in food and beverages still not in place

Consumer Reports News: March 29, 2013 01:53 PM

How much progress have federal officials made in taking steps to reduce Americans' exposure to arsenic in everyday foods such as rice and apple juice? Not as much as we'd hope to see. While there is an arsenic standard for drinking water, no federal limit exists for arsenic in most foods.

It's been more than a year since Consumer Reports started publishing test results that found worrisome levels of arsenic in juices and in rice products such as rice crackers and rice cereals. We urged that you consider limiting consumption of some juices and some kinds of rice products. Meanwhile, the wheels are turning slowly as various agencies weigh in on proposed arsenic rules.

Here's an update on each area:

Arsenic in juice
More than a year ago, the Food and Drug Administration said it would conduct tests and possibly draw up new guidelines to reduce risks posed by arsenic in juice after Consumer Reports' tests found that roughly 10 percent of samples of apple or grape juice tested had total arsenic levels that exceeded federal drinking-water standards. Most of that arsenic was the inorganic form, a carcinogen that poses special risks for pregnant women and young children.

The FDA has now drafted a report that may propose new guidelines to limit arsenic in apple juice, but that report remains under wraps while being reviewed at the Office of Management and Budget, where it has been for at least a couple of months, based on comments made by an FDA official at a National Academy of Sciences meeting on January 24.

Arsenic in rice
Last September, when Consumer Reports released even more troubling results based on its tests for arsenic in more than 200 samples of rice products, including brown rice, white rice, as well as rice cereals, crackers, and drinks, our safety experts called on the FDA to set limits for arsenic in rice products.

The FDA responded by announcing that its own tests of rice and products such as infant rice cereals had detected inorganic arsenic at levels that were consistent with Consumer Reports' results, and it released results for nearly 200 of the samples it tested. The agency also pledged to test at least 1,000 additional samples by the end of 2012 to help determine what steps are needed to reduce arsenic exposure in rice. Though the agency should have completed tests of more than 1,300 samples of rice and rice products, the full results have not yet been disclosed.

Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, has filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act to obtain results of all tests for arsenic in rice and rice products that the Food and Drug Administration has collected in its files from 1991 through the present. The request, part of our continuing investigation into health hazards posed by arsenic's presence in rice, seeks not only data on the levels of organic and inorganic arsenic detected but also all other details, including the country or state where the rice being tested was grown. Such data also are helpful in formulating our recommendations to consumers about consumption of rice products.

We'll keep you updated as the issue moves along.

Andrea Rock

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