Next Steps on Arsenic and Rice

By: Suzanne Fitzpatrick, Ph.D., DABT 

On Sept. 6, FDA announced the results of testing 1,300 samples of arsenic in rice and rice products and found that the arsenic levels in rice do not present an immediate or short-term health risk. 

As we said last week, the next step is to assess the potential health risk from long-term exposure to the arsenic in rice and foods made with this grain. 

And that is where my job starts. I am a scientist at FDA and I’d like to explain the scientific legwork that will be done over the next few months by some of the most preeminent arsenic experts in the country. 

This is a daunting task, with one complicating factor being the sheer volume of rice products. When we conducted the risk assessment on arsenic in apple juice that led to the proposed limit, or action level, of 10 parts per billion, we were essentially dealing with one product. With rice, there are different varieties and hundreds of products made with rice. We’ve already started the work. A thorough risk assessment is underway by FDA scientists at the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, in consultation with colleagues in FDA’s National Center for Toxicological Research and in other federal agencies, including the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the Environmental Protection Agency. 

Scientists and medical experts of all kinds will be working together. I am a toxicologist and will be looking at the data on possible different adverse effects from arsenic exposure in rice. Nutritionists will be studying rice consumption patterns and epidemiologists will be looking for patterns of disease. There will be statisticians, experts on exposure to arsenic, and many others. 

We will use published research on people who have been exposed for years to elevated levels of arsenic in the drinking water. Importantly, we will be looking to see how arsenic may affect the youngest and most vulnerable among us. 

This analysis will take time. As it progresses, the rice industry, university researchers, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture are working to identify ways to reduce arsenic levels in rice during production. This is important because we want to minimize exposure to contaminants like arsenic in our foods whenever feasible. 

In the meantime, let me repeat FDA’s advice to eat and to serve your family a balanced diet that contains a variety of grains, including wheat, barley and oats. Consistent with advice long given by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), we recommend that infants and young children eat a variety of grain cereals for good nutrition. According to AAP, there is no medical evidence that rice cereal has any advantage over other cereal grains as a first solid food. 

My colleagues and I are scientists, but we’re also consumers and parents ourselves. It is our responsibility – our mission –  to put forth the best possible science on this issue – to understand and minimize any long-term risk from the presence of arsenic in rice and foods made with rice. 

Dr. Suzanne Fitzpatrick is the Senior Advisor for Toxicology in FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition

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