Arsenic in Rice: New Report Finds 'Worrisome Levels'

Rice eaten just once a day can drive arsenic levels up 44 percent.

September 19, 2012, 1:04 AM

Sept. 19, 2012— -- A major consumer magazine is warning Americans to limit how much rice they eat because of concerns over arsenic and the FDA is investigating the matter.

According to a sobering report released to "Good Morning America" by Consumer Reports magazine this morning, rice eaten just once a day can drive arsenic levels in the human body up 44 percent. Rice eaten twice a day can lead to a 70 percent increase in arsenic.

"So far our results…we actually have about the same number of samples in (and) these two data sets are fairly similar," FDA commissioner Margaret Hamburg -- referring to the testing of arsenic levels in products conducted by Consumer Reports and similar tests conducted by the FDA --- said in an interview with ABC News today. But added that "based on the available data and the scientific literature" they see no immediate health threat.

"We are not recommending that consumers need to change their consumption of rice products in dramatic ways," Hamburg said. "We think the best advice is a balanced diet (and) it's good nutrition. There are lots of varieties of grains and other products that should be part of a balanced diet."

Urvashi Rangan, director of consumer safety and sustainability at Consumer Reports, however went farther saying "we think that consumers ought to take steps to moderate their consumption."

Consumer Reports tested many forms of rice for arsenic, from cereal for babies and adults, to brown and white whole grain, pasta and drinks. More than 60 rice and rice products were tested overall, including name brands.

Many contained what the magazine calls "worrisome levels of arsenic"— some products had up to five times higher levels than the arsenic found in oatmeal and one and a half times more than EPA's legal standard for drinking water.

The researchers also found geographical distinctions in arsenic levels, with white rice grown in Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, and Texas, containing higher levels than rice samples from other parts of the country. Those four states account for 76 percent of domestic rice produced.

Inorganic arsenic is considered a level one carcinogen, linked to lung and bladder cancer. Today, the FDA will announce it has concerns about rice and arsenic and is studying the issue, but in the meantime recommends a varied diet. Consumer Reports calls for more.

"Foods really shouldn't be any different and as we look at the levels we're finding in these products there needs to be a standard set for these foods already," Rangan said. "We called for that on apple juice in January, we're calling for that again in rice products today" referring to a January investigation of data released by the FDA of arsenic levels in apple and grape juice.

Surprisingly, when it comes to arsenic the less nutritional white rice is better than brown. The carcinogen is most prevalent in the outer layers of the grain and white rice is polished removing some of those layers.

Consumer Reports suggests rice eaters limit themselves to one serving a day, especially for babies. Rinsing and then boiling rice in a 6 to 1 water ratio removes about 30 percent of its arsenic. They also caution that children under the age of 5 should not be given rice drinks as part of their daily diet.

"We're not saying never do that," Michael Hansen, senior scientist on the Consumer Reports study said. "We're saying it should be very infrequent."

Although no products were named in the report, Nestle, the parent company of Gerber, said in an unsolicited statement to ABC News "all Gerber products are safe to consume, including Gerber rice cereal and Gerber SmartNourish organic brown rice cereal." They added that although they monitor arsenic levels, consumer concern led them to "exclusively use California rice in the production of our rice-containing infant nutrition products… because California rice has the lowest naturally occurring arsenic levels for rice grown in the United States."

The USA rice federation does not dispute the findings, but says the results are overblown since there is no documented evidence of actual illness linked to rice.

"These are very, very low levels," Dr James R. Coughlin, president and founder of Coughlin & Associates, an independent toxicology consulting company for the USA Rice Federation, said. "Rice is a safe and nutritious food and in fact people who consume rice more frequently in their diets are actually healthier than other Americans."

Rice contains more arsenic than other grains experts say, because it is grown while submerged in water. Arsenic does appear naturally in the earth, but Consumer Report says levels have been increased by use of arsenic-laced fertilizer.

Consumer Reports scientists explain that arsenic is fed to chickens, turkey, and pigs, and their manure is used as fertilizer for rice and other crops.

"All of those uses introduce arsenic into our environment, into our food supply, and we essentially are doing a lot of things to ourselves that deliberately introduce arsenic into food supply," Rangan said.

The National Chicken Council, however, released a statement following this morning's broadcast "strongly condemning these insinuations."

"Chickens in the United States produced for meat are not given arsenic as an additive in chicken feed," said Tom Super, NCC vice president of communications. "Some flocks used to be given feed that contained a product called Roxarsone, which included safe levels of organic arsenic. Even though the science shows that such low levels of arsenic do not harm chickens or the people eating them, this product was removed from the market last year, it is no longer manufactured and it is no longer used in raising chickens in the United States. No other products containing any amount of arsenic are used in chicken production."

In a response provided to ABC News, Consumer Reports said: "There are around 100 arsenic-containing drug formulations currently approved for use in healthy chickens to promote growth, improve pigmentation, and prevent disease, including Roxarsone, which Pfizer voluntarily and temporarily suspended sales of in July of 2011. There are also other arsenic containing drugs approved for use in food animal production including Nitrasone which is currently on Pfizer's website. If the Chicken industry's current stance is that arsenic containing drugs are not required to grow chickens for meat, then they should be more than willing to support our position on a complete ban on the use of arsenical drugs in poultry production."

This report follows a February Dartmouth report that found organic products containing brown rice syrup could have high arsenic levels.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events