The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently issued a consumer update reassuring the public about the safety of apple juice after a TV talk show claimed that certain brands contain high levels of arsenic. Mehmet Oz, who hosts “The Dr. Oz Show,” apparently sent 50 apple juices samples to EMSL Analytical, Inc., which measured total arsenic levels as high as 36 parts per billion (ppb) in one sample. After learning of the results, FDA sent two letters to the show’s producers asking them not to air the segment, not only because the results seemed “erroneously high” but also because the laboratory only considered the total amount of arsenic.

“As we have previously advised you, the results from total arsenic tests CANNOT be used to determine whether a food is unsafe because of its arsenic content,” stated FDA in its September 9, 2011, letter. “We have explained to you that arsenic occurs naturally in many foods in both inorganic and organic forms and that only the inorganic forms of arsenic are toxic, depending on the amount. We have advised you that the test for total arsenic DOES NOT distinguish inorganic arsenic from organic arsenic.”  

As one FDA senior science advisor further explained in the consumer update, “Organic arsenic is essentially harmless, but the inorganic kind can be harmful at high and long-term levels of exposure.” The agency also noted that it “has been tracking total arsenic contamination in apple and other juices for about six years, since foreign producers started gaining an increasing share of the juice market.” In addition, importers must prove that their fruit juices and concentrates are safe for the domestic market.  

Nevertheless, U.S. Senator Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) has already weighed in on the matter, calling on FDA to “put in place clear standards for imported fruit and vegetable juice concentrates and step up inspection of concentrates from countries that use toxic, inorganic arsenic in their pesticides, or with high levels of environmental contaminants.” Despite acknowledging the talk show’s questionable methodology, Schumer issued a September 19, 2011, press release urging FDA and the Environmental Protection Agency to create a system similar to that currently used for bottled water. “Given the terrible track record of countries like China that export the vast majority of certain juices these days, you can never be too careful,” opined Schumer, “and that’s why I’m calling on the FDA to set standards for juices just like they do for water. Many kids drink more juice per day than water, so we need to take every available precaution and make sure standards are in place that consider the long-term exposure to inorganic arsenic.”