Arsenic FAQ

What is Arsenic?

Arsenic is a naturally occurring element that is found in soil, water, plants and animals.  The properties of arsenic have been known since antiquity.  In ancient times, it was used in a variety of potions of uncertain therapeutic value and was a favorite in various poison-for-hire schemes.  In modern times, arsenic has been used in a variety of applications including as a pesticide, as a wood preservative and in the semiconductor industry.  It exists in two forms:  organic and inorganic.

What is the difference between organic and inorganic arsenic?

Inorganic and organic arsenic occur naturally in the environment, with inorganic forms being most abundant.  Inorganic arsenic is associated with other metals in igneous and sedimentary rocks, and it also occurs in combination with many other elements, especially oxygen, chlorine, and sulfur.  Organic arsenic contains carbon and hydrogen.  It should be noted that inorganic and organic are not terms used to indicated pesticide usage, or even human activity, but rather the other metals and elements the arsenic is bound to.

How does arsenic get in my food?

Arsenic has been in food as long as humans have been consuming food.  Because arsenic exists in soil and water, incorporation into most plants and food, including rice, is inevitable.  Some studies suggest that human activity can elevate arsenic levels.  Arsenic is present in a wide array of foods, including flour, corn, wheat, fruit, poultry, rice and vegetables, as well as beer and wine, fruit juices and water.  We support ongoing research into methods to reduce levels of inorganic arsenic in rice.

What are the health risks of arsenic?

Chronic exposure to inorganic arsenic can elevate the risk of cancer of various organs, as well as skin cancer.  The levels of exposure in which this correlation has been documented has been at levels substantially greater than the levels found in rice.  In epidemiological studies observing the effects of poor water quality, particularly in developing countries, scientists have found that high oral exposure to arsenic over time causes adverse health effects1.  In addition, the FDA’s recently published scientific assessment identified potential developmental effects from chronic exposure to inorganic arsenic in infants and small children2. For this reason, they established a guidance level of 100 ppb for infant rice cereal.  They also recommended that pregnant women eat a variety of grains and for infants to be given a variety of fortified infant cereals. The FDA did not establish a guidance level of inorganic arsenic in rice for other populations, but rather continued their recommendation to eat a well-balanced diet for good nutrition and to minimize potential adverse consequences from consuming an excess of any one food.

1 http://organiclatinamerica.com.ar/en/arsenico-en-la-comida-y-en-el-arroz/

2 http://www.fda.gov/Food/FoodborneIllnessContaminants/Metals/ucm319870.htm

What does "ppb" mean?

1 ppb = one part per billion, or one microgram or one millionth of a gram of substance per liter of water.  This is equivalent to one drop of water in a swimming pool, adding a pinch of salt to a 10-ton bag of potato chips, or three seconds in a century.

What is the FDA’s role in regulating the food supply?

The “FDA is responsible for protecting the public health by assuring the safety, efficacy and security of … our nation’s food supply…”3.  As such, it has the responsibility for assessing potential contaminants in the food supply.  It regularly monitors food distributed in the United States, and establishes standards so that we can have confidence in the safety of our food.  In its guidance on the levels of inorganic arsenic in rice, the FDA set a level of 100 ppb for inorganic arsenic in infant rice cereal.  It also recommended that pregnant women eat a variety of grains and for infants to be given a variety of fortified infant cereals. We support the FDA’s recommendations.  Although we don’t currently sell infant cereal, we understand our products are consumed by people of all ages, and are committed to the transparency of our testing results. We will comply with the FDA’s guidance for any products we may sell in the future, either directly to the public, or rice we sell to other companies that make these products.

3 U.S. Food and Drug Administration, “What We Do”, http://www.fda.gov/AboutFDA/WhatWeDo/

What does ALARA mean?

ALARA stands for As Low As Reasonably Achievable and relates to the process of setting Maximum Levels (MLs).  Let’s say, for example, that toxicologists determine that 50 ppb of chemical X is safe – it would not be expected to produce harm.  But let’s say that the food industry (growers and processors) is able to keep chemical X below 10 ppb without disrupting the food supply.  This is where the ALARA principle say the limit should be set at 10 ppb, as low as we can reasonably and reliably get it.

What is the safe exposure limit for arsenic?

The FDA established a guidance level of 100 ppb of inorganic arsenic in infant rice cereal4.  It did not set a level for rice destined for use in the general population.  The FDA did recommend that pregnant women eat a variety of grains, and that infants be given a variety of fortified infant cereals.  It also recommended that individuals eat a balanced diet, including a variety of grains.

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) established limits for rice products distributed in the European Union, which went into effect in January 2016. These limits are 300 ppb for rice cakes and rice crackers, 250 ppb for brown rice and parboiled rice, 200 ppb for white rice, and 100 ppb for rice destined for the production of food for infants and small children5.

In July of 2014, the Codex Alimentarius Commission (Codex) adopted a standard ML of 200 ppb for white rice (polished rice)6.  Codex is scheduled to consider a standard for brown rice at its meeting in April 2016.

4 http://www.fda.gov/Food/FoodborneIllnessContaminants/Metals/ucm319870.htm
5 http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/HTML/?uri=CELEX:32015R1006&from=EN
6 Joint FAO/WHO Food Standards Programme, Codex Alimentarius Commission, Report of the Ninth Session of the Codex Committee on Contaminants in Foods, New Delhi, India, 16-20 March 2015.

Is arsenic in rice a health concern?

Regulatory agencies around the world have been evaluating the impact of arsenic in rice for several years, and have identified levels at which inorganic arsenic in rice do raise health concerns.  The levels of inorganic arsenic found in rice for the general public in the United States generally fall below these levels.  The most significant concern identified by the FDA and EFSA regarding inorganic arsenic in rice is related to the consumption of rice by infants and small children.  Various studies have shown impacts to developing brains, including deficits in intelligence and memory7.  Because the relationship between consumption and body weight is highest in infants and young children, the FDA has established levels of inorganic arsenic in infant rice cereal that are consistent with the levels set by EFSA for rice destined for the production of food for infants and young children, and half those established by EFSA and Codex for the population at large.

7 http://www.annalsofglobalhealth.org/article/S2214-9996(14)00304-X/abstract?cc=y=

What are the levels of inorganic Arsenic in brown rice?

All grains start life as whole grain.  In its natural state growing in the fields, whole grain is the entire seed of the plant (also called the kernel), consisting of three parts:  the bran, the germ and the endosperm.  Brown rice is a whole grain and contains the entire grain kernel, all three of its parts.  White rice, considered a refined grain, consisting only of the endosperm.  The bran and germ, which are about 10-15% of the whole kernel, and contain many nutrients in rice, are removed in the milling process.  As reported by the FDA’s 2013 study of rice products, brown rice had approximately twice the concentration of inorganic rice compared with white rice8.  Brown rice has significantly higher levels of Vitamin B, Manganese phosphorous, iron and fiber than white rice.  Our testing of inorganic arsenic in rice has focused on our brown rice, and over the five years we have analyzed (2011-2015), the average level in our brown rice is about 93 ppb.

8 http://www.fda.gov/Food/FoodborneIllnessContaminants/Metals/ucm319870.htm

What about infant foods?

The FDA’s scientific assessment identified infant food as its primary concern in relation to the inorganic arsenic levels found in rice9.  As such, it developed a level of 100 ppb for infant rice cereal. Although we don’t currently sell infant cereal, we understand our products are consumed by people of all ages, and are committed to the transparency of our testing results. We will comply with the FDA’s guidance for any products we may sell in the future, either directly to the public, or rice we sell to other companies that make these products.

We have been testing our rice for the past five crop years, and have found that the average of all of our brown rice is below 100 ppb.  You can see the levels, by type of rice, in our section on Arsenic Testing.

9 http://www.fda.gov/Food/FoodborneIllnessContaminants/Metals/ucm319870.htm

How can a toxin, like arsenic, find its way into an organic product?

Plants are what they eat.  Arsenic is one of the most common elements found in the environment.  It is naturally occurring, and can be found in most foods.  The levels of inorganic arsenic in our rice and rice products are below the levels established by the FDA, EFSA and Codex.  Even with these low levels, we are continuing to evaluate research being conducted by institutions around the world into ways of reducing the arsenic levels further, and conducting our own field trials of methods that have shown some promise at a laboratory scale.

Is there a difference between organic and conventional practices in relation to arsenic uptake?

Arsenic is a naturally occurring element in soil and water. All plants take up arsenic, including fruits and vegetables, regardless of whether the farming method is conventional or organic. Organic agriculture embraces natural systems of production, and we support continued research to utilize natural systems to minimize levels of inorganic arsenic in the food supply.

Should consumers with dietary restrictions limit their consumption of rice?

We understand that many consumers have dietary restrictions due to existing health conditions, such as celiac disease and gluten intolerance, which lead them to consume more rice than most Americans.  We support the FDA’s recommendation to eat a balanced diet, including a variety of grains.  There are a number of grains, including rice, that do not contain gluten.  One such gluten-free product is quinoa. Lundberg recently added American-grown quinoa to its product line, and many consumers find this a pleasant addition to their menu.  Other gluten free grains are amaranth, buckwheat, corn, millet, sorghum and teff.

Last Updated: 4/11/16