After several years of study, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration today advised parents to stop feeding their infants so much rice cereal, warning that the latest research now suggests that arsenic concentrations in the grain can interfere with cognitive development.
It was the agency’s strongest acknowledgment yet that arsenic in the food supply poses a measurable risk to American citizens.
In a “Consumer Update” posted early this afternoon, titled “Seven Things Parents and Pregnant Women Need to Know about Arsenic in Rice and Rice Cereal,” the agency stated that it had found that “exposure may result in children’s decreased performance on certain developmental tests that measure learning.”
The FDA also advised pregnant women to avoid a diet high in rice products, again because of arsenic exposure, citing a “growing body of scientific studies linking adverse pregnancy outcomes to intake of relatively high levels of inorganic arsenic during pregnancy.”
Research has shown, the agency acknowledged, that rice takes up more arsenic from soil and water than any other grain. It is particularly effective at vacuuming up inorganic arsenic. The term “inorganic” is used by chemists to describe a compound that does not include the element carbon; inorganic arsenic compounds appear to possess an unusually wide range of cell-damaging abilities at the part-per-billion level.
The news of the FDA decision prompted one of the nation’s leading baby-food manufacturers, Gerber, to immediately post a note of reassurance online to its “Dear Gerber Families,” assuring parents that its product was safe and, in fact, met the new FDA proposed guideline for arsenic in rice — which is recommended at 100 parts per billion. That 100 ppb limit is, at this point, considered an advisory number rather than a legal standard.
Public comments will be solicited by the agency for the next 90 days before taking more official action.
In 2012, Consumer Reports, the public health advocacy and research organization, published an expose of arsenic in rice products, launching a national discussion of the issue. The organization’s report, as well as other widely publicized studies of related problems, including troubles with organic rice products, led to an FDA decision to review the problem. Consumer Reports had recommended a safety level of 90 parts per billion to be applied to a wider range of products.
Today, the organization issued a cautious, and slightly unenthusiastic, response to the FDA’s new guidance.
“While Consumer Reports is pleased to see that the FDA has finally proposed a limit on arsenic in infant rice cereal, and it is close to the level we recommended more than three years ago,” said Urvashi Rangan, director of the organization’s Food Safety and Sustainability Center, in an emailed statement, “we remain concerned that so many other rice-based products consumed by children and adults remain without any standards at all.”
“This is particularly true of children’s ready-to-eat cereals,” Rangan continued. “We believe the FDA can act swiftly to protect public health and set levels on these products based on the risk the agency has acknowledged in its announcement today, and we intend to continue to push them on behalf of consumers to do so.”
Both she and the FDA officials agreed that parents should feed their children — and themselves — a diverse diet to ensure good health. Although the recent FDA announcement focused primarily on arsenic risks linked to possible developmental issues, in its list of seven main issues, the agency also noted that arsenic exposure has been calculated to slightly increase the rate of both lung and bladder cancer in the United States.
It was, perhaps, with that in mind, that Rangan added to the recommendation for a diversified diet: “Focus on alternatives to rice.”