The Food and Drug Administration recently responded to a Consumer Reports alert that significant arsenic levels have been discovered in rice and products made from rice. In response, two Democrats in the House of Representatives have introduced legislation to require the FDA to limit the acceptable amount of the deadly toxin in the food supply.
This begs the question, what level of arsenic, a deadly poison, should be considered acceptable? Currently the only part of the industry under the FDA’s control for the toxic element is bottled water. The proposed legislation, the Reducing Food-based Inorganic and Organic Compounds Exposure Act, would expand the federal watchdog’s purview to include the rest of the food supply. The USA Rice Federation has released a statement to the effect that it is working closely with the FDA to analyze the problem and its sources. It also states that a CODEX study has revealed that U.S. sources of rice have the lowest inorganic arsenic of all countries tested. 1
Placing the rest of the food supply under FDA purview makes a great deal of sense, as research has already demonstrated that over 200 well-known rice-based food products have tested positive for inorganic arsenic elements. While the legislation and the FDA’s inquiry are pending, Consumer Reports has advised consumers to reduce the amounts of both white and brown rice they buy; along with baby formula based on rice, rice milk, and rich-based pasta and crackers.
The main danger of arsenic is its carcinogenic properties, which are are by no means off the charts but still pose a substantial enough cancer risk to merit our attention. The arsenic in cigarette smoke is off the charts; the fact that most of us are no longer inhaling it all day every day is a major coup for public health. Arsenic is is both a naturally-occurring element (through volcanic and erosive processes) and man-made (through the burning of fossil fuels and the use of pesticides). It enters the food supply through the soil.
While we wait for the latest statistics on arsenic levels in rice and other foods to become available, how can we protect ourselves and our families from this toxin and others like it? The reduction of toxic elements in all our food is just one of many points of intersection between the integrative health movement and the alternative fuels movement. (It’s unfortunate that the latter has become so politicized; the continued worldwide burning of fossil fuels is really a public health issue.) So one thing we can do is to continue lobbying for clean energy worldwide. Since that’s a long-term project, however, it also makes sense to buy organically-grown wild rice and steer clear of rice-based processed foods. Babies do better on breast milk than on formula, so try to nurse your children naturally if possible. If other issues preclude that, buy 100% organic infant formula, being sure to read the labels carefully. In a time when some food processing plants can still get away with simply labeling their products “organic” when they’re really not, we all need to become assiduous label-readers!
More than a thousand food products are currently under review to determine their toxicity, including arsenic levels. In general, eating organic is probably our best defense against arsenic and other food toxins. Over the long term, we can also each do our part to reframe the alternative fuel conversation from a political to a public health issue.
William K. Ferro
William K. Ferro is a freelance writer who lives and works in Maryland near the Chesapeake Bay. He specializes in holistic health and wellness.