The Food and Drug Administration today proposed limiting the amount of arsenic that is allowed to be present in infant rice cereals.

Through a draft guidance to the food industry, the FDA is asking food manufacturers to limit the amount of inorganic arsenic to 100 parts per billion (ppb). That’s close to the 90 ppb limit Consumer Reports called on the agency to set more than three years ago for infant rice cereals.

“We’re pleased that the FDA has taken this step, but we remain concerned about the amount of inorganic arsenic in other rice products,” says Urvashi Rangan, Ph.D., executive director of the Consumer Reports Food Safety & Sustainability Center. “We urge the FDA to quickly set standards for those foods as well.”  

Our Work on Arsenic in Rice

Inorganic arsenic in our food supply has long been an important issue for Consumer Reports. The heavy metal is a potent carcinogen and can also set children up for other health problems in adulthood.

In 2011, we reported on the high levels of arsenic in apple and grape juices. In 2012 and 2014, we published our risk assessment of arsenic in rice and rice products. We’re also concerned about the non-cancer effects of the heavy metal, especially regarding the effects on developing fetuses. The FDA has also said that pregnant women should be aware of arsenic in the foods they eat, and follow a varied diet.

In 2014, we published the results of our 2013 analysis of FDA data on the inorganic arsenic content in various types of rice, rice products, and other grains. Based on that analysis, we assigned points to these foods and recommended that adults and children not exceed more than seven rice points per week. We gave infant rice cereal 1 1/4 points, and recommended that babies not be fed more than one serving (1/4 cup) of rice cereal per day.

“Rice beverages, breakfast cereals, and other rice products as well as rice itself are a big part of many children’s diets,” says Rangan. “That’s why we recommend varying the grains in children’s, as well as adults’ diets.”

What Babies Should Eat

The FDA said that “it would be prudent for parents and caregivers to feed their infants a variety of [iron] fortified infant cereals, rather than to rely solely on infant rice cereal.” These include barley, oat, and multigrain. The agency also noted that any of these are appropriate for infant diets, and even infants’ first food. Consumer Reports has found that other grains have far lower arsenic levels than rice.

The inorganic arsenic content of rice varies depending on the type of rice and where it is grown. Manufacturers should get the rice they use for infant cereals from sources that are lowest in arsenic, according to the FDA.

What About Other Rice Foods?

When asked if it would be looking at the levels of other rice products and consider action levels, Susan Mayne, Ph.D., director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, did not respond directly, stating that the announcement today is focused on infant cereals because infants are the most vulnerable population and relative to body weight, eat three times the amount of rice as adults.

The public will have 90 days to comment on the proposed limits on arsenic in infant rice cereal and the FDA’s assessment of rice before the guidance becomes final. However, manufacturers can adopt this standard at any time.  

Consumer Reports Limits for Arsenic in Food

Rice Product

Recommended Inorganic Arsenic Limit for Infants (parts per billion or ppb)

Infant cereal

90

Hot rice cereal

60

Ready-to-eat rice cereal

37

Rice drink

3

Rice

120-150

Rice pasta

30

Rice crackers

74

Rice cakes

74