Data from the Food and Drug Administration has found arsenic levels in rice and rice products comparable to those found by Consumer Reports in its own investigation. And the FDA found another surprising source of arsenic: beer, which sometimes uses rice as an ingredient.
As Consumer Reports continues to investigate arsenic in the food supply, new scientific studies add to the evidence that long-term dietary exposure to arsenic poses a health risk.
Our statistical analysis of the FDA's test results from more than 1,300 samples found that among types of white rice, the parboiled version tended to have the highest levels of inorganic arsenic, with an average of 114 parts per billion (ppb). Instant rice had the lowest, averaging 59 ppb. Also noteworthy: Medium-grain rice from California tended to have lower levels of inorganic arsenic than rice originating from other areas of the U.S. Although inorganic arsenic is a known carcinogen, there are no federal limits for it in juice, rice, or most other food.
In some cases, the inorganic arsenic levels that the FDA found in rice products were even higher than Consumer Reports' test results from 2012. That was true for rice beverages that are used as a milk replacement, which underscores our advice that children under the age of 5 should not have rice drinks as part of a daily diet.
The FDA found elevated levels of arsenic in beer after testing 65 samples, all of which the agency says included some form of rice as an ingredient. The results showed that 10 of them contained inorganic arsenic levels that ranged from 15 ppb to 26 ppb, significantly more than the federal drinking-water limit of 10 ppb for total arsenic. The agency plans no further testing of beers. Based on its full data, the 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," says Theresa Eisenman, an FDA spokeswoman.
Recent scientific evidence suggests that those risks can be significant. Last July researchers in the United Kingdom and India published a groundbreaking study providing the first evidence that frequently eating rice with high amounts of total arsenic can actually lead to genetic damage in cells associated with cancer.
The study measured damage to chromosomes within cells obtained from the urine of more than 400 adult study participants in an area of India with low arsenic in drinking water. Those who ate about 2½ to 3 cups of cooked rice per day containing more than 200 ppb of total arsenic excreted more genetically damaged cells than those eating rice with less arsenic.
The study noted that more than 10 percent of the rice in China, Pakistan, and Bangladesh is estimated to have arsenic concentrations exceeding 200 ppb, while in the U.S., more than 50 percent of the rice is estimated to contain arsenic at those elevated levels. More research is needed to see whether the study's results would apply to Americans, who eat less rice and generally have better nutrition.
Diversify your grain consumption to include grains other than rice. And when you do cook rice, rinse it first, and use a ratio of 6 cups of water to 1 cup of rice to cook it (draining the excess water afterward).
In a first step toward reducing Americans' unnecessary exposure to arsenic in food, the FDA in July 2013 proposed an "action level" of 10 parts per billion for inorganic arsenic in apple juice. An action level provides a benchmark for apple-juice makers and an enforcement tool for regulators. The FDA stated that the 10 ppb guidance to industry "will help keep out of the food supply even the occasional lot of apple juice" containing arsenic above that level.
But the fact that most of the apple-juice samples the FDA tested already had inorganic arsenic levels below 10 ppb is one reason Consumer Reports' safety experts concluded that the agency's proposed guidance doesn't sufficiently protect public health. In written comments submitted to the FDA after thoroughly reviewing the rationale behind its proposal, they urged the agency to set a tougher level that "creates an incentive for the marketplace to reduce levels of inorganic arsenic in apple juice and thereby reduce risk—not simply maintain the status quo."
In calculating the risks of arsenic exposure from apple juice, the FDA also appears to have significantly underestimated how much juice children drink. A Consumer Reports survey of parents conducted in 2011 found that on the day before the survey, more than 25 percent of children under age 6 consumed more than 8 ounces of apple juice, which was the highest daily consumption estimate used by the FDA, and 12 percent drank 16 ounces or more.
Ever since the release of our test results for arsenic in juice in 2011, Consumer Reports has recommended setting a limit of 3 ppb of total arsenic for apple juice. If that is not immediately feasible, our experts say that it should be no higher than 4.4 ppb, which is the inorganic arsenic level the FDA used when calculating the risk it deems acceptable. They also urged the FDA to set action levels for other juices, such as pear and grape, where tests have found inorganic arsenic levels much higher than 10 ppb.
The FDA is reviewing the comments it has received to determine whether revisions are needed in its proposed guidance, according to Eisenman. She says the agency is continuing to collect and test more juice samples for arsenic but cannot predict when it will publish those results.
Limit children's consumption of apple and grape juice. Children up to age 6 should have no more than 4 to 6 ounces a day.
One way arsenic might enter the food supply is through the use of arsenic-based drugs in feed given to chickens, turkeys, and pigs to prevent disease and promote growth. Poultry droppings are used to fertilize many crops and can contaminate them with arsenic. And chickens that are likely to have been raised with arsenic-based drugs result in chicken parts that can have higher inorganic arsenic levels than other chickens, according to a July 2013 study led by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future.
Three of the four drugs in use have recently been removed from the market, and the FDA is still evaluating the only remaining arsenic-based animal drug, nitarsone, which is approved for use in turkeys and chickens. It has requested more data from the company marketing the drug and expects to complete key analysis by the end of March. Consumers Union, the public policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, believes that nitarsone also should be withdrawn from the market.
Our Food Safety and Sustainability Center is pressing for federal limits on the amount of arsenic allowed in food and beverages.
Read more about our work on arsenic.
This article appeared in the March 2014 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.