Amid continuing concerns about the potential health risks associated with consumption of inorganic rice, federal health officials have announced that they are taking additional steps to regulate the amount of arsenic allowed in rice products, which may be contributing to neurocognitive deficits in children.
In a statement released this week by the FDA’s Dr. Susan Mayne, director of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN), it was announced that the agency will be updating their 2016 risk assessment and finalizing the new action level guidance for allowable arsenic levels in rice products within the 2018 calendar year.
The FDA and other health agencies have been testing for arsenic levels in food products for more than 20 years and researching the possible health consequences arsenic exposure may cause.
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 affects, including cancer, heart disease and death. Organic arsenic quickly passes through the body and is not harmful to humans.
In September 2013, the FDA issued a consumer update providing information on the agency’s ongoing evaluation of the potential health concerns surrounding arsenic found in rice products. The study included more than 1,300 samples of rice and other rice products collected from various retail stores across the U.S. that were tested for total arsenic levels.
Since the study, which found levels of arsenic in nearly all of the 1,300 products, the FDA has taken additional steps to reduce the allowable levels of arsenic in rice products introduced into the U.S. market.
In 2016, the agency published their arsenic risk assessment on the potential health impacts associated with arsenic levels found in infant rice products.
Following the publishing on the risk assessment, the FDA issued a draft guidance for the food industry setting the action level of 100 parts per billion for inorganic arsenic in infant rice cereal.
The new guidance will aim to further reduce exposure to toxic elements in food, cosmetics and dietary supplements through rigorous scientific research and collaboration with other health safety organizations.
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. Rice cereal is one of the first foods many infants receive, and is a common ingredient in many baby foods and snacks.
Recent evidence has revealed 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.
In a report (PDF) published in December, the group Healthy Babies Bright Futures highlighted the potentially harmful levels of arsenic still commonly found in infant rice cereal products consumed by young children. The group tested more than 100 cereals including popular brands such as Gerber, Earth’s Best, Beech-Nut and Nestle and found all but one of the infant rice cereals tested had significantly higher levels of arsenic than non-rice cereal products.