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Arsenic in rice: New FDA test results are confirmation, not rebuttal

Rice grows at a crossroads of environmental contamination and food safety, and there has been a major collision.

rice field photo
Rice is farmed in watery conditions and known to have a high capability for taking up arsenic, in forms both naturally occurring and added by man, from soil and water.

Because I’ve upped my intake of brown rice in recent years, displacing more refined starches in a move toward a healthier diet, I zoomed in on recent cheery headlines about U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) testing of rice and rice products for arsenic.

FDA: There’s Arsenic in Rice, But Don’t Worry is how The Daily Green blog at Good Housekeeping bannered its report on Monday, which began:

Arsenic should not be a concern for consumers eating rice, according to the Food and Drug Administration, which has reacted to independent and media studies of arsenic levels in rice with the most thorough study to date on the presence and risk of arsenic in rice.

Others from around the Web: Rice safe to eat despite arsenic levels: FDA (Atlanta Journal-Constitution). FDA: Low Levels of Arsenic in Rice (HealthDay via WebMD).  FDA tests find very low levels of arsenic in rice (USA Today).  FDA Says Arsenic Levels in Rice Are Safe–For Now (Time magazine’s Healthland blog.) Rice safe to eat despite arsenic levels, FDA says (Fox News).

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Well, this sounded like great news indeed — perhaps even a rebuttal of an investigative report published by Consumer Reports last November. That was the report, you may remember, which showed that single servings of some brands of rice and rice-based food products exceeded the arsenic limit that New Jersey applies to a liter of drinking water.

That food-to-water comparison is not perfect, but it’s apt enough and, unfortunately, the best we have because the U.S. has set no national standard, yet,  for arsenic in food. But there is one for inorganic arsenic in drinking water, and it’s 10 parts per billion, which happens to be exactly twice the science-based standard originally favored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

It also happens to be twice the New Jersey standard, which followed the EPA recommendation of 5 ppb, or 5 micrograms per liter.

Collision at the crossroads

Rice is grown at a crossroads of environmental contamination and food safety, and there has been a major collision. The crops are farmed in watery conditions and are known to have a high capability for taking up arsenic, in forms both naturally occurring and added by man, from soil and water.

Still, the high concentrations found by CR were surprising. More arresting, for many people who try to think seriously about the healthfulness of their foods, was the finding that arsenic concentrations tended to be higher in brown (or unpolished, natural rice)  and somewhat lower in rice that had undergone various forms of polishing, processing and so on.

This was a reversal of the usual wisdom about the comparative benefits of whole foods vs. the processed kind. So was the finding that organic rice had no particular advantage over conventional varieties, arsenic-wise. 

The main distinguishing factor seemed to be where the rice was grown, with higher levels showing up in rice from Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas and Missouri. Because these states produce a lot of rice from land formerly devoted to cotton, the reasoning is that arsenic-based pesticides used in cotton production have persisted at especially high levels in soils and groundwater there.

(And speaking of Whole Foods, the retailer: Its 365 Everyday Value brand of long grain brown rice topped the list for arsenic content; where that rice was grown, the company wouldn’t tell CR.)

FDA tests confirm magazine’s

So, now we have the long-awaited results of FDA’s own independent tests on 1,300 samples of rice and rice products and … the results essentially mirror CR’s.

So does its advice to consumers: Eat less rice, and change your preparation methods for whole rice to remove more arsenic (rinse before cooking and use a lot more water, which can carry away arsenic along with more of the nutrients that make us choose rice in the first place).

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Oh — and stay tuned for guidance on the long-term risks of consuming arsenic from rice, which pretty much everyone understands to be the real issue with this poison.

FDA is just beginning to plan its research on how much rice may raise the risks of heart disease and certain cancers for adults, and the incidence of cognitive impairment and developmental disorders in children.

An older story in the UK

It is perhaps worth noting that CR’s tests did not really break new scientific ground on arsenic in rice.  

In reading up on the subject, I noticed that the UK’s Food Standards Agency warned parents in 2009 that “toddlers and young children should not be given rice milk because it exposes them to arsenic.” The following year, the British Food Matters website called arsenic in rice “an enormous health crisis for hundreds of thousands of people across the world whose lives are being devastated” by the exposure.

Closer to home, Dartmouth College researchers were reporting on risks associated with high levels of arsenic in rice as of March 2012, according to NPR.

So CR was far from first in zeroing in on this problem. On the other hand, it was ahead of the FDA.

 Good news, bad news or no news?

One of the snarkier, though spot-on sensible takes I saw on FDA’s announcement was offered by Deborah Blum, who writes often about food safety and chemical pollution. She had a piece in Wired on Friday headlined, “The FDA sidesteps on arsenic and rice“:

Today, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a statement offering the reassurance that you will not drop dead in the street from eating rice at lunch. Of course, if you’re still breathing you already know that.

Blum goes on to make these key points:

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  • Study after study has demonstrated that arsenic levels in rice are not going to be toxic in the short-term, so the heart of Friday’s news isn’t really news at all.
  • On the question of risk from long-term exposures, however, “the really serious work has yet to be done.”
  • Because that “bigger message [was] somewhat unfortunately buried” in Friday’s announcement, it’s fair to take the overall announcement “as a deliberate move to more loudly reassure” not only a possibly worried public but also “the U.S. rice industry, which has expressed growing unhappiness over the arsenic story.”

I am genuinely glad to see the FDA tackling this complicated and important public health issue. I could wish that the agency had done a better job of explaining the work.  I heard the same reaction from the toxicologists I talked to today – their worry that people in the high risk groups would suddenly believe there was no risk at all.

 “That message needs to be retooled,” one told me. “It sounds like the  FDA missed the point,” agreed another. “It’s a dodge,” said yet another. “The issue is long term exposure and the surprisingly serious and widespread health issues now clearly associated with this exposure.”

If you doubt Blum’s conjecture as to FDA’s interest in comforting industry, check out the commissioner’s blog post that accompanied announcement of the test results — a sort of upbeat travel story from the California rice fields, full of praise for all the growers and processors who are working so hard “to better understand how arsenic gets into rice and what growing and processing strategies might be employed to reduce arsenic levels.”