On Farms and in Labs, FDA and Partners Are Working to Get Answers on Arsenic in Rice

By: Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D.

This week, my colleagues and I traveled to California to learn more, first-hand, about the presence of arsenic in rice.

FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg and Deputy FDA Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine Michael Taylor, center, don hip waders to go out into the rice fields at Lundberg Family Farms in Richvale, Calif. At left is Bryce Lundberg, the farms' vice president of agriculture, and at right is Mike Denny, vice president of farming operations.

This grain, like other foods, contains traces of arsenic, a chemical element found in water, air and soil. However, rice plants absorb more arsenic than most other crop plants. FDA has been monitoring arsenic levels in foods, including rice, for decades.

On Wednesday, Sept. 4, we toured a research facility in which scientists are working to find ways to improve the quality and safety of rice. And we visited the historic farming community of Richvale — a short drive north of Sacramento — known as the birthplace of California rice.

In each of these places I saw a true commitment to public health and a shared goal of ensuring that any risk is minimized so that people around the world can continue to eat rice and rice products as part of a varied diet.

Today, FDA released the results of tests performed on a total of more than 1,300 samples of rice and rice products. What we found was that the levels of inorganic arsenic are well below the levels that would result in any immediate or short-term health risks. This information will now be considered by FDA in looking at the potential long-term health effects associated with the consumption of arsenic in rice and rice products.

Our visit to California, at the invitation of the rice industry – including the USA Rice Federation – was FDA’s third fact-finding visit to rice-producing states, the earlier trips being to Arkansas and Missouri. My traveling companions included Michael Taylor, FDA’s Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine, and Andy Hammond, regional director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS).

Our first stop on Wednesday was at the Rice Experiment Station in Biggs operated by the California Cooperative Rice Research Foundation. Research at the station is funded in large part by assessments on rice growers and involves close collaboration with experts at the University of California/Davis and ARS.

Touring the station’s research fields gave us a sense of the determination by all involved in this work, including industry, to better understand how arsenic gets into rice and what growing and processing strategies might be employed to reduce arsenic levels.

That afternoon we visited two multi-generation family farms in Richvale. Lyle Job and his family have been farming their land for more than 30 years. At the Lundberg Family Farms, in business since 1937, we learned about the different approaches of organic rice farmers.

These farmers take enormous pride in their work. They told us about the soil and climate conditions that make their land ideal to grow rice. At the Job farm, we climbed up into a huge harvester to see how it operates. At the Lundberg farm, we put on hip boots and waded out into flooded fields.

Standing beside these farmers, I was struck by their commitment to making the best product possible and the intensity of their desire to help us understand the challenges they face. Rice is not just a commodity to them; it’s their way of life.

Our last stop, on Thursday, Sept. 5, was to FDA’s laboratory in Alameda, where hundreds of rice samples were tested using a process called “speciation.” FDA scientists developed the speciation method used to measuring total arsenic levels, but most importantly to measure both the organic and the more toxic inorganic forms of arsenic.

So what does this all mean right now? As a mother I can imagine that many of you are asking yourself, “Should I be feeding it to my children?” Our best advice – consistent with that given by the American Academy of Pediatrics – is to eat a well-balanced diet that includes a variety of grains.

We don’t have all the answers yet, but we’re working on it. In collaboration with farmers, industry, academia and other public health agencies, we are doing everything possible to determine if the levels of arsenic in rice pose a long-term health risk and, if so, what can be done to reduce that risk.

The presence of arsenic in rice is a global health issue. The answers we seek will ultimately help protect consumers all over the world.

For more photos of our tour, visit Flickr.

Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D., is the Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration

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