Arsenic In Rice: An Old Issue That’s Still Emerging
Center for the Global Food Value Chain Blog
Have you ever thought about arsenic while consuming that burrito or while feeding your baby her first rice cereal? Honestly, the thought never crossed my mind. As a food scientist, you learn a lot about foods; sometimes it changes the way you eat and other times it has no effect on your diet. However, some information that came out last year from the FDA put the topic in perspective for me, particularly as a new mother who had just fed her daughter a lot of rice cereal.
Arsenic isn’t something people have to “put” in your food. It’s a metalloid widely distributed in the earth’s crust, occurring in trace quantities in all rock, soil, water and air. People are exposed to arsenic mainly through food and water.
The EPA estimates that 17 percent of inorganic arsenic exposure comes from rice, which absorbs arsenic from soil or water. It’s one of the only major crops grown in water-flooded conditions, which allow arsenic to be more easily taken up by its roots and stored in the grains. A study by the European Food Safety1 Authority found cereal products could account for more than half of dietary exposure to inorganic arsenic, mainly because of rice.
The FDA has been monitoring arsenic levels in rice for more than 20 years and is paying close attention to rice and rice products consumed by children, as well as Asian-Americans and consumers with celiac disease who are likely to have diets higher in rice. The FDA has analyzed nearly 200 samples of rice and rice products and is collecting about 1,000 more. However, since rice is grown all over the world and has different growing parameters depending on the region it’s grown in, there’s a wide variation of arsenic levels with the same kind of product. To date, the analysis doesn’t show any evidence of a change in total arsenic levels, but rather that researchers have better tools to determine whether the levels represent some of the more or less toxic forms of arsenic. After FDA has completed its analysis of rice products and conducted a comprehensive assessment of potential health risks, they will look into strategies that will limit consumer’s arsenic exposure from rice and rice products.
The FDA’s Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) requires that FDA establish standards for conducting a hazard analysis, implementing preventive controls for the hazards, and documenting the implementation of the preventive controls by facilities that manufacture, process, pack, or hold food which is commonly referred to as the “preventive controls regulation”. Once regulations are finalized, registered facilities will be required to conduct a hazard analysis and have a written preventive controls plan to validate that food is not adulterated under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act) Section 402 or misbranded under FD&C Act Section 403(w).
The FDA is working with other government agencies, industry, scientists, consumer groups and others to study the issue and assess risks, but hasn’t made any recommendations or indication that people should avoid rice and rice products. However, it’s highly recommended that all companies with rice or rice products in their supply chain should consider arsenic in their hazard analysis. Until the FDA makes a final decision on arsenic in rice, I’ll keep myself educated and make my own decisions regarding whether or not to restrict it from my diet.
Manager, Food Safety
Deloitte & Touche LLP