Legislators propose limits on arsenic in rice

Legislators propose limits on arsenic in rice
Proposed legislation would put limits on the amount of arsenic in rice and rice-based products. (Sonoko Sakai)

In response to a recent investigation that found “substantial” levels of arsenic in rice and many rice-based products, a group of Democrats plans to introduce legislation Friday that would impose federal limits on the dangerous element.

Reps. Rosa De Lauro of Connecticut, Frank Pallone of New Jersey and Nita Lowey of New York said in a joint statement that their bill would require the Food and Drug Administration to set a maximum for the amount of arsenic permissible in foods containing rice.  

The move is based on a Consumer Reports finding earlier this week urging consumers to cut back on rice ingestion after researchers said they discovered "worrisome" traces of inorganic arsenic in products including brown and white rice and rice-based infant cereals, pastas, drinks and crackers.

Inorganic arsenic is a known carcinogen for humans. Organic arsenic arsenic is less toxic but still "of concern," according to the product-testing group.


The FDA has only set arsenic limits on bottled water. The so-called R.I.C.E. Act, known officially as the Reducing Food-based Inorganic and Organic Compounds Exposure Act – would change that.

"The federal government has an obligation to every American family to ensure that the food they consume is safe and should not make them sick," said DeLauro in a statement.

The trio earlier this year introduced another bill to set a threshold on arsenic and lead in fruit juices after a similar Consumer Reports study found high levels of the elements in grape and apple beverages.

So is this a sign of the government playing nanny, a la New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s soda ban? Or should fans of the grain take caution?

[Updated, 8:40 a.m., Sept. 21: South Korea will temporarily stop imports and sales of American rice as it conducts tests on arsenic levels, the agriculture ministry said in a statement. In the same notice, the government said the rice in question was the medium-grain variety from California and that the likelihood that it contained arsenic was low.

Last year, the country brought in 101,490 tons of rice from the U.S. and plans to import 90,901 tons this year, according to the statement.]

Research and advocacy organization Environmental Working Group suggests that consumers mix alternatives such as quinoa, barley, grits, couscous or bulgur wheat into their diets. Brown rice, which tends to be more susceptible to arsenic, should be boiled in large amounts of water, according to the group.

"In many cases the arsenic found in food comes from natural sources, but that doesn't mean it is safe," said Sonya Lunder, senior research analyst at EWG, in a statement.

Earlier this week, the FDA recommended that people "eat a balanced diet containing a wide variety of grains" but said consumers shouldn't have to change their rice consumption "at this time."

The agency said it is currently analyzing some 1,200 rice products for arsenic content and has monitored the issue for decades.

Arsenic is distributed in the Earth's crust, released from volcanoes and from erosion of mineral deposits, as well as through mining, pesticides and the burning of coal, oil, gasoline and wood, according to the FDA.

"We understand that consumers are concerned about this matter," said FDA Commissioner and physician Margaret A. Hamburg in a statement. "FDA is committed to ensuring that we understand the extent to which substances such as arsenic are present in our foods, what risks they may pose, whether these risks can be minimized, and to sharing what we know."


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