FDA Sets Arsenic Limits For Infant Rice Cereal

Federal health officials have issued new guidelines designed to reduce the amount of arsenic in baby food products, after research indicated early exposure to the chemical may result in in behavioral and cognitive impairment.

The FDA announced the baby food guidance on August 5, claiming the move will significantly reduce the allowable levels of inorganic arsenic in rice and cereal products, which have been linked to neurodevelopmental side effects.

The final guidance issued this month establishes a 100 parts per billion limit for inorganic arsenic in all white, brown, organically grown and conventionally grown infant rice cereal products. The 100 parts per billion limit follows the initial recommendation made by officials in 2016 when they issued the first inorganic arsenic draft guidance, which was intended to be finalized in 2018.

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Arsenic is a known human carcinogen, which is measured according to organic and inorganic levels. Inorganic arsenic is toxic to humans at high levels or over long periods of time and is associated with long term health effects, including cancer, heart disease and death.

Infant rice cereal products are of particular concern to the agency due to the rice’s ability to absorb up to 10 times more heavy metals from the soil than other grains, often leaving the most vulnerable population to higher levels of arsenic exposure.

In October 2019, a study released by Healthy Babies Bright Future found lead, arsenic and other neurotoxins in 95% of the 168 baby food products tested across 61 brand names. Roughly 20% of products contained over 10 times the federally recommended lead limit. Researchers indicated 95% of the food products contained lead, 73% contained arsenic, 75% contained cadmium and 32% contained mercury, while 25% contained all four heavy metals.

Organic arsenic is a natural element that occur in the air, water and soil. However, highly concentrated levels of these elements can cause severe adverse health effects according to researchers. Past studies have suggested inorganic arsenic exposure can decrease a child’s performance on developmental tests, and may also cause neurological problems, lung and bladder cancer and other side effects.

Although the levels of arsenic found in rice products will be lowered through the new guidance, pregnant women and infants should still eat a wide variety of grains, health experts recommend. Rice cereal is one of the first foods many infants receive and is a common ingredient in many baby foods and snacks.

Officials indicate manufacturers have made significant progress over the last decade in reducing inorganic arsenic levels in infant rice cereal. The FDA reported internal testing found in 2018 that 76% of samples were at or below the 100 ppb level, compared to 47% of samples tested in 2014 and 36% of samples tested between 2011 through 2013.

Despite the final guidance being issued limiting the level of inorganic arsenic to 100 parts per billion, some critics claim the agency has not gone far enough and that the limit should be lower.

Consumer advocacy group Consumer Reports called for a 90 parts per billion limit in 2012, and recently stated there should ultimately be no detectable levels of arsenic in children’s food. Consumer Reports director of food policy indicated that although the group does not feel the agency has gone far enough to protect children, the 100 ppb limit is a good starting point to reduce over time.

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