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Consumer Reports releases arsenic in rice study; FDA says warnings premature, and industry responds

Consumer Reports today released a study on arsenic levels in rice and recommended that consumers take steps to avoid exposure to a known human carcinogen, but the USA Rice Federation criticized the study, and the Food and Drug Administration said it is too early to tell whether consumers should change their consumption.

The consumer watchdog magazine called on the FDA to set limits for arsenic in rice and also in apple and grape juices, and noted that there are arsenic limits in drinking water. The report also said 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.

Consumer Reports also said that the Environmental Protection Agency should phase out use of all arsenical pesticides and that EPA and the Agriculture Department should end the use of arsenic-laden manure as fertilizer for all foods and halt the feeding of manure to animals.

While the FDA said it would be premature to recommend any limits on rice consumption, the agency did say that many foods including grains, fruits, and vegetables absorb arsenic through the soil and water but that “rice is different because it takes up arsenic from soil and water more readily than other grains. In addition, some seafood has high levels of less toxic organic arsenic.”

FDA said the preliminary findings of its tests on 200 samples of rice and rice products “appear to be consistent” with the Consumer Reports findings, but that the agency will not make any recommendations until it has collected and analyzed 1,000 more samples “in order to adequately cover the wide variety of rice types, geographical regions where rice is grown, and the extraordinary range of foods that contain rice as an ingredient.”

While Consumer Reports said its goal is “to inform — not alarm — consumers,” the USA Rice Federation said “the article is incomplete and inaccurate on many levels.”

“It employs an ‘arsenic content standard’ that simply doesn’t exist in federal law,” the federation said. “It cites federal health data to allege health risk from arsenic ingestion when that data is based on arsenic excreted from, rather than absorbed by, the body. It offers consumption advice without addressing all of the relevant public health issues that must be taken into account.”