Arsenic in Our Food Supply, Part Two
Posted by kevvyg on Monday, June 30, 2014
Arsenic In Our FoodSo we've touched the issue from a few years ago, of arsenic in apple juice, but what has taken its place in the limelight is rice. Rice is a staple in the diet of people around the world. Towards the end of 2012, Consumer Reports did a large study of arsenic levels in a variety of rice and rice products commonly sold here in the U.S.[5]

Like the testing of apple juice, nearly every form of rice tested had measurable amounts of arsenic, both the organic and more toxic inorganic forms. On the heels of this research, the FDA did a separate evaluation of many of the same products and again, like with apple juice, found lower levels of arsenic than published in previous research. With the finding of levels (of both organic and inorganic arsenic) averaging below the 10 ppb threshold that is now in place for drinking water and juice, the FDA essentially recommends nothing other than eating a balanced diet and thoroughly rinsing white rice.[6]

USDA Food Pyramid Gets a MakeoverIt's interesting to note that both studies found higher levels of arsenic in brown rice. Yes, the same brown rice that many choose as the healthier alternative over more refined white rice, and with regard to white rice, the more it is rinsed prior to being prepared and consumed, the more nutrient value is stripped away. Though the FDA recommendation to "diversify the diet" and to eat a greater variety of foods sounds like a great idea, if you're eating rice, breakfast cereal, rice 'milk', apple juice, snack bars, foods that contain brown rice syrup, grapes, baby formula, pear juice, or any number of things, you will still likely be consuming measurable amounts of arsenic. Talk about a catch-22!

Arsenic in Rice - Why?At this point, you might think that we would finally have stopped using arsenic in food production, but when you considering how relatively recent it was that some of the last arsenicals were banned for agricultural use, you would be wrong. More troubling, even as recently as last year, the FDA still trying to limit the reintroduction of arsenic into the food supply via arsenic-containing poultry feed components by drug makers Pfizer and Alpharma.[7] This was not even a year ago, and by the time the agency did take action, the producers had seen the writing on the wall and ceased production in the U.S. (it was and is still produced for sale and use overseas).

One of these three drugs, Roxarsone, was re-approved for use as recently as 2009, but has been in use since it was first approved in 1944. Though the drug uses the less toxic organic form of arsenic, arsenic can and does change form. An examination of chicken litter from poultry that had been administered this drug showed higher concentrations of organic arsenic as well as levels of inorganic arsenic. As a result, four rice farmers in Arkansas filed a lawsuit against large poultry producers. Chicken litter from poultry producers is sold as fertilizer, and in Arkansas where much of this country's chicken and most of its rice comes from, this fertilizer often ends up in rice fields.

Fertilizers & Pesticides - Continuing Links to the ProblemSo to simplify this, the theory is,
  • Poultry administered arsenic based drugs to increase weight and fight a digestive tract disease.
  • Some of the arsenic changes form to the more toxic inorganic form.
  • Concentrated organic and now the more toxic inorganic arsenic comes out in chicken excrement.
  • Chicken excrement/litter is sold as fertilizer and spread on American rice fields.
Ultimately the lawsuit was dismissed, with the National Chicken Council noting that the findings of the research reflected “very low levels of arsenic,” and were not worrisome. This would likely not be as troubling to consumers if the link, between chickens being purposefully fed arsenic-based drugs and higher concentrations of arsenic being found in rice, didn't appear to be so linear. Still, some damage had already been done to the rice industry. As a result of the FDA and Consumer Reports study done on arsenic in rice, S. Korea suspended bids for U.S. Ironically, though S. Korea imports nearly all of its U.S. rice from California (not Arkansas), they were still concerned enough to suspend bids.[8]

This case highlights one of the big issues facing the food supply and potential problems. The food supply chain is an global one. This is why here in the U.S. we can get blueberries or bananas or mangoes year round. On some Traditional Rice Farming level all countries are dealing with these types of issues. Less than two weeks ago, Iran, the largest importer of basmati rice from India, cut imports due to concerns over arsenic levels.[9] In the Philippines last year, authorities have asked import surveyors to screen for excessive amounts of cadmium in rice imported from China. Last week, WalMart announced it was tripling its food safety budget in that country to nearly $50 million dollars over two years.[10]

That is just a brief sampling, but you could literally spend days online reading similar articles for other countries and food supply issues around the globe. As the food supply chain becomes more closely linked to other countries and more imported food finds its way onto American tables, the issue of food inspections becomes even more important. So it is extremely troubling to find that the Agriculture Department has seen nearly a 20% drop in its budget, and currently less then 3% of imported food into the United States is ever inspected.[11] Take heart though. If you think we're doing a poor job here in the U.S., just remember that just a few short years ago, 1 of every 2 food inspections in China, failed.[12]

With the global nature of the food supply chain, the issue of inspections is one that affects other countries as well. From the EU, with strict standards of government inspection, to Australia, which relies on producers to inspect their own product, countries are grappling with serious issues of free trade and safe food.

Changing Role of the USDAThough few recognize it, the change in U.S. policy is being done with no input whatsoever from the U.S. consumer. Some would argue that the USDA inspection process is inefficient and use this as a reason to push for the privatization of the process. On the surface, it's a valid argument but fails to show how inspections could be far better and more thorough if more of the USDA budget was actually spent on inspections, as opposed to crop insurance, farm subsidies and S.N.A.P. (food stamps). Regardless of all of this, change is coming. Food safety, much like the increased reports of food recalls and foodborne illness in the news, will undoubtedly be an issue that comes up with greater frequency in the future.

All of this makes me particularly thankful for next weekend. I'll be traveling back to Ohio to visit the family and, as usual, taking my cooler with me. Of the two dozen or so cattle that roam around on the family farm, there's a steer that has recently joined the freezer up there and needs to be "liberated." No shots, no hormones, no antibiotics, and a grass/hay diet - I think I have room in the cooler for that.

Finally, I did want to mention this. As I was finishing this article I happened to come across a piece from the satirical site, The Onion. The coincidental timing of this article is truly uncanny. FDA Recalls Food.

5 Consumer Reports Arsenic in Food
6 FDA - Arsenic in Food
7 New York Times - Arsenic Based Drugs
8 Jakarta Post - Korean Rice Imports
9 Time of India - Iranian Rice Imports
10 Washington Post - WalMart Food Safety in China
11 New York Times - Food Inspections & Illness
12 - Chinese Food Inspections

To read the first part of this food safety blog.

Author: K. Gilmore

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