After testing more than 200 rice products, Consumer Reports purportedly found levels of total arsenic, both organic and inorganic, far in excess of the federal limit of 10 parts per billion (ppb) for arsenic in drinking water. Among the products tested were baby cereals, crackers, milk, pasta, flour, and an array of brown, white and basmati rice. One infant cereal product apparently contained up to 329 ppb of arsenic. Consumer Reports recommended that consumers cook their rice in twice the amount of water, 6 cups to 1 cup of rice, eat a varied diet and experiment with other grains that are less prone to absorbing arsenic from soil and water as they grow.

Its investigation included a data analysis by researchers experienced in National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) analyses. They found that of 3,633 rice consumers who participated in NHANES, those consuming one rice food item before their urine was tested had total urinary arsenic levels 44 percent greater than those who had not. The participants who consumed two or more rice products had arsenic levels 70 percent higher than those who had not eaten any rice. The researchers concluded that “rice is an important source of arsenic exposure for the U.S. population.” Consumer Reports has called for a federal standard limiting the amount of rice in food and for industry to develop types of rice that take up less arsenic from water and soil.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a statement indicating that it, too, has been testing rice products and will complete its data collection by the end of 2012. To date, its results have apparently been consistent with the data that Consumer Reports published. FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg said, “We understand that consumers are concerned about this matter. That’s why the FDA has prioritized analyzing arsenic levels in rice. Our advice right now is that consumers should continue to eat a balanced diet that includes a wide variety of grains—not only for good nutrition but also to minimize any potential consequences from consuming any one particular food.”

Representative Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) expressed his concern about the Consumer Reports findings and agreed that “there should be a federal arsenic standard for these products like there is for bottled water.” He was pleased the FDA is collecting and analyzing data about arsenic in food, but noted that it has “yet to issue recommendations on consumer consumption.”

An industry trade association criticized the Consumer Reports article on the results of its investigation, saying that it was “incomplete and inaccurate on many levels: it employs an ‘arsenic content standard’ that simply doesn’t exist in federal law. It cites federal health data to allege health risk from arsenic ingestion when that data is (sic) 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.” The USA Rice Federation also emphasized that “the Food and Drug Administration is not recommending that consumers change their diet based on this article. We agree with FDA that any limits set for arsenic in rice products should be the result of a carefully conducted risk-assessment.” While some scientists have warned against complacency, citing studies linking arsenic consumption to lung and bladder cancer, as well as other diseases, the federation contends, “There is no documented evidence of actual adverse health effects from exposure to arsenic in foods made from U.S.-grown rice.” See FDA News Release, September 19, 2012; Delta Farm Press, September 20, 2012.