By Siobhan Crise
5:15 PM EDT, April 9, 2013
Curry and sushi lovers beware: the issue of arsenic in rice is set to come back on the table this year.
The toxic problem first grabbed the headlines in September 2012, when Consumer Reports announced the results of its investigation into what it called "worrisome" levels of arsenic in rice and items like rice cakes and infant rice cereals. The report was published in the November issue of the magazine.
Now the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is readying its own more extensive report on the presence of arsenic in the staple food, and a Connecticut congresswoman is ready to call for federal limits to be set.
Back in September, Consumer Reports recommended restricting consumption of rice and rice products following its investigation. The FDA released some preliminary findings from its own study at the same time, but refrained from telling people to change their rice-eating habits.
The FDA said then it was putting together a report on 1,200 rice samples, which would help to determine its recommendations. The agency is now finalizing and checking its data, according to a spokeswoman, who declined to say exactly when the report would be released.
Currently there is no federal standard for arsenic in foodstuffs. Vegetables, fruits and fruit juices, and rice represent most of Americans' dietary exposure to inorganic arsenic, the more harmful type of the element, which is a known carcinogen. FDA standards exist only for arsenic in bottled water and that limit is 10 micrograms per liter (the same as the Environmental Protection Agency's limit for arsenic in public drinking water).
The lack of federal standards is of real concern to Third District Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, who keeps watch on drug and food safety. The representative, whose district includes New Haven, said she plans to reintroduce legislation in Washington this year that would put a limit on arsenic in food. "This is a critical issue," DeLauro said. "No parent should have to worry the food on their kitchen table will harm them or their children."
DeLauro, with fellow Democrats Frank Pallone and Nita Lowey, put forward the R.I.C.E. Act (Reducing food-based Inorganic and organic Compounds Exposure Act) in September, hot on the heels of the Consumer Reports study. Earlier in 2012, the trio introduced the APPLE Juice Act after a separate report sparked alarm about arsenic in apple juice and grape juice. The RICE bill is to be put forward again because a new Congress started in January.
But why is rice such a problem? According to the FDA, rice absorbs arsenic from soil and water more effectively than other grains. Arsenic is a chemical element that is found naturally in the earth, but industrial and agricultural uses of it, for things such as pesticides, have led to an increased incidence in the environment. The FDA says that it doesn't matter whether rice is grown conventionally or organically; the plants are susceptible because of arsenic already occurring in the soil and water.
The Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station in New Haven is researching the toxin and has funding from the FDA to improve its technology to analyze inorganic arsenic. Currently the laboratory is examining total arsenic in seaweed, but in coming months it will get set up for work on arsenic speciation, that is, examining for inorganic arsenic, which has been linked to bladder, lung and skin cancer.
Jason White, chief scientist at the lab's Department of Analytical Chemistry, said he expects food items of concern, such as juice and rice, will be received for analysis from Connecticut state agencies once the new speciation equipment, which was paid for by the FDA, is set up in coming months. The FDA has been measuring total arsenic in foods since 1991.
In Fairfield County, rice purveyors aren't worried yet. Charles Vosguerichian of Organic Market, a health food store and café in Westport, says the outlet hasn't stopped selling or serving rice because the amounts found in the 2012 study were "miniscule". Mathew Poovathanical, of Southport's Coromandel, says his Indian restaurant serves only white basmati rice from India, and he's absolutely happy with the quality (though not with recent price increases).
The Consumer Reports study revealed that white rice grown in Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, and Texas, which produce three quarters of U.S. rice, generally had higher levels of the toxin than rice samples from elsewhere. For brands that produced brown rice and white rice, the brown rice samples consistently had higher levels of the carcinogen.
Supermarkets are keeping a close eye on the situation. A spokeswoman for Stop & Shop, which has hundreds of stores throughout the Northeast, said "We remain in communications with the FDA and with our rice suppliers as they continue to examine the issue." Specialty food retailer The Fresh Market said in a statement: "While there are not yet government standards in place to limit the amount of arsenic in food, both The Fresh Market and our suppliers take this matter very seriously."
A spokesperson for Whole Foods, whose brand of 365 Everyday Value rice was examined in the Consumer Reports study, did not return a request for comments. A statement on the company's website says it is concerned by the results of the consumer organization's tests on its rice.
The company, which bills itself as America's healthiest grocery store, also said in its statement that federal standards for arsenic in food would be helpful for both consumers and producers.
DeLauro is clear on the issue. "We need to do more to ensure that our food — including rice and fruit juices — is safe and does not have unacceptably high levels of arsenic or other potentially harmful components."
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