Release date 09/19/2012
YONKERS, NY — In Consumer Reports’ tests of more than 60 rice and rice products, inorganic arsenic, a known human carcinogen, was found in most of the name brand and other rice product samples. Levels varied, but were significant in some samples.
While there are federal limits for arsenic in drinking water, there aren’t many standards for arsenic in food. Earlier this year, Consumer Reports found worrisome levels of arsenic in apple and grape juices and called on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to set limits for arsenic in those juices. Based on its latest findings and analysis, Consumer Reports is asking the government to take additional steps, including urging the FDA to set limits for arsenic in rice and rice products.
“The goal of our report is to inform—not alarm—consumers about the importance of reducing arsenic exposure and offer actions they can take moving forward, such as limiting their rice consumption,” said Urvashi Rangan, Ph.D., Director of Safety and Sustainability at Consumer Reports. “Given what we now know about arsenic’s increasing role in contributing to multiple cancers and other serious health effects, the government needs to regulate arsenic in food. This includes setting standards and banning the practices that persistently deliver arsenic into our food and water supply.”
Consumer Reports Findings
Consumer Reports tested a range of rice products including infant cereals, hot cereals, ready-to-eat cereals, rice cakes, rice crackers, rice pasta, rice flour, and rice drinks and found varying, but measurable amounts of total arsenic—including inorganic and organic forms—in samples of almost every product tested. Inorganic arsenic is a known carcinogen that can cause bladder, lung, and skin cancer. Two organic forms measured—called DMA and MMA—are classified as possible carcinogens.
Consumer Reports’ study provides a snapshot of the market, with many products purchased in the New York metropolitan area and online this past spring. It is too limited to provide general conclusions about individual brands or categories of rice products but there were notable findings.
White rice grown in Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, and Texas generally had higher levels of total arsenic and inorganic arsenic than rice samples from elsewhere (India, Thailand and California combined).
Within tested brands offering brown and white rice versions, brown rice had higher average total and inorganic arsenic than their white rice counterparts.
Some brown rice samples were lower in arsenic compared to some white rice samples which may be explained by agricultural practices or geographic location.
Infant rice cereals and drink products also contained worrisome levels of arsenic. Consumer Reports advises that children under the age of 5 not be given rice drinks as part of their daily diet, similar to advice given in the United Kingdom regarding rice milk.
People who ate rice had arsenic levels that were at least 44 percent greater than those who had not according to Consumer Reports’ analysis of federal health data. Certain ethnic groups were more highly affected, including Mexicans, other Hispanics, and a broad category that included Asians.
Some food companies are concerned. And methods have been introduced to try to reduce levels of arsenic in products.
A chart identifying arsenic levels for each sample Consumer Reports along with complete report and analysis can be found online at www.consumerreports.org. The article “Arsenic in your food,” also appears in the November 2012 issue of Consumer Reports.
What the Government Should Do
Because Consumer Reports found significant levels of inorganic arsenic it believes more must be done to reduce dietary exposure.
The FDA should set limits for arsenic in rice products as well as apple and grape juices as Consumer Reports has previously requested.
The FDA should ban the feeding of arsenic-containing drugs to animals for that are used for the purpose of pigmentation, growth promotion, feed efficiency and disease prevention.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) should phase out use of all arsenical pesticides.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the EPA should end the use of arsenic-laden manure as fertilizer for all foods and halt the feeding of manure to animals.
“Consumers may be surprised to learn that similar to antibiotics, arsenic-containing drugs can be fed daily to chickens, turkeys, and pigs to promote growth, lower the levels of feed required, prevent disease in healthy animals, and color the meat,” Dr. Rangan said. “The manure of treated animals ends up containing arsenic too. It can also be used to fertilize food crops, which effectively introduces arsenic back into the food supply. We are asking the government to stop the cycling of arsenic in our food and water.”
What Consumers Can Do
Consumer Reports used the latest available science to choose a moderate level of protection that balanced safety and feasibility. For infants, children and pregnant women, risks maybe heightened. Arsenic risk is based on cumulative exposure over a lifetime. The recommendations are based on a person eating just one product per day or per week over a lifetime. If limits are exceeded one week, cut back the next. The following table highlights Consumer Reports’ advice on ways to limit consumer’s exposure to arsenic in rice and rice products:
** Consumer Reports recommends that children not consume rice milk on a regular basis.
There are other ways consumers can reduce their overall exposure to arsenic:
Rinse raw rice thoroughly before cooking and use a ratio of 6 cups water to 1 cup rice for cooking (draining the excess water afterward). Research has shown this can reduce arsenic levels.
Experiment with other grains. Though not arsenic-free, other studies have shown wheat and oats tend to have lower levels than rice.
Eat a varied diet to help minimize risk of exposure.
Keep in mind that some vegetables can accumulate arsenic when grown in contaminated soil. To help, clean vegetables thoroughly, especially potato skins.
Limit the consumption of other high-arsenic food. Some fruit juices such as apple and grape juice can be high in arsenic, as Consumer Reports’ previous tests showed.
Consumers’ whose home water is not on a public water system should have it tested for arsenic and lead. To find a certified lab, contact the local health department or call the federal Safe Drinking Water hotline at 800-426-4791.
Consumers can urge the government to take action, by visiting www.ConsumersUnion.org/arsenic.
Why Arsenic is a Concern
Inorganic arsenic, the predominant form of arsenic in most of the 65 rice products Consumer Reports analyzed, is ranked by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as a known human carcinogen. It is known to cause bladder, lung, and skin cancer in humans, with the liver, kidney, and prostate now considered potential targets of arsenic-induced cancers. Two remaining forms of organic arsenic found—DMA and MMA—are considered to be possible carcinogens. It is important to note that these forms can chemically interchange, especially in the environment, so the continued use of organic arsenicals in animal feed and pesticides is still a major concern.
Arsenic can enter soil or water due to weathering of arsenic-containing minerals in the earth, but the U.S. is the world’s leading user of arsenic, and since 1910 about 1.6 million tons have been used for agricultural and industrial purposes, about half of it only since the mid-1960s.
Long-term studies that track health effects of exposure to arsenic in rice have only recently begun. One small study, published in late 2011 by Dartmouth researchers, suggests that many people in the U.S. may be exposed to potentially harmful levels of arsenic through rice consumption.
The USDA has invested in research to breed types of rice that can grow in areas that have elevated levels of arsenic in their soil. That may help explain the relatively high levels of arsenic found in rice from the south-central U.S., though other factors such as climate or geology may also play a role.
Consumer Reports is the world’s largest independent product-testing organization. Using its more than 50 labs, auto test center, and survey research center, the nonprofit rates thousands of products and services annually. Founded in 1936, Consumer Reports has over 8 million subscribers to its magazine, website, and other publications. Its advocacy division, Consumers Union, works for health reform, food and product safety, financial reform, and other consumer issues in Washington, D.C., the states, and in the marketplace.