Arsenic In Our Food Supply, Part One
Posted by kevvyg on Friday, June 27, 2014
The other morning, as happens many mornings, I spent some time on the back patio, enjoying the relative silence and cooler temperature over coffee and a reading through of some morning news stories. There was an article that I came across that caught my attention, and it dealt with the use of the term "all natural" on food labeling. I have always lumped "all natural" into Arsenic in my rice you say? the same category as "hypoallergenic" - essentially throwaway terms with very little meaning (this is the reason why you don't see that term used too often on the AchooAllergy site - I try to severely limit the use of it here).

As I am often prone to do when I read, one article lead to another, then another and another, and before I knew it, I had to rush to get out the door before Atlanta traffic turned the roads into parking lots. While looking at the use of the term "all natural" I came across another article that mentioned some of the common pollutants found in our everyday foods, and while there are literally tens of things to write about in this regard, the curious case of arsenic in rice was one that stuck out.

Few of us would ever associate eating rice with ingesting arsenic, cadmium, or other heavy metals, but just as eyebrows were raised over research showing elevated levels of arsenic in apple and pear juice a few years ago, there has been growing concern over arsenic and other heavy metals in rice. This poses a variety of problems but is severely complicated by the fact that rice is the grain of choice for much of the world. I admit, it has been difficult to clearly define and limit this topic since it touches on so many things that affect our daily lives, from the foods we eat to the growing holes in the food inspection system, politics, and international trade. That's a lot of ground to cover for a topic that could literally start with a morning bowl of Rice Krispies!

This is going to be a two part post with the first touching on arsenic as a compound, sources of exposure and past problems with arsenic in food and the second dealing with arsenic in rice, the growing holes in food inspection and the international nature of this problem.

Arsenic is an element but, as a compound, can be divided into two types, organic and inorganic. When most of us hear the word "arsenic" we're likely thinking of the inorganic type. Inorganic arsenic is what is most toxic to humans. Exposure to high levels of arsenic can cause a variety of health issues and in the most extreme cases, death.

Arsenic is still in wide use today. From semiconductors and use in metals to pesticides and food additives (yes, food additives) arsenic, in its many forms has a wide range of uses.

In the United States, arsenic compounds (arsenicals) were used extensively to spray orchards (as an insecticide) or to treat wood (as a preservative). Even though its use in orchards waned decades ago, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) still mentions "runoff from orchards" as a source of arsenic contamination of drinking water.[1] It's no small wonder FDA though. Since the early 1900's, arsenic-based insecticides/pesticides have been used across the country to a tune of over one million tons. Over the years, studies have linked brain damage, and other health problems, to the use of these compounds and have lead to bans or conversions to using the organic (less harmful) form of arsenic. It's always worth noting that while we would like to think that using arsenic to spray crops is long a thing of the past, it wasn't until just last year, December 31st, of 2013 that the use of arsenicals was officially banned for agricultural use, EXCEPT for use in cotton production. [2]

Arsenic is naturally occurring, particularly in ground water, but it's elevated levels of arsenic that can cause severe health problems. Exposure, either in intermittent but concentrated levels or consistent but only slightly elevated levels have been linked to diabetes, several types of cancers, compromised immune response, organ failure, and death. There's good reason why it has historically been used as a poison, but it’s important to remember that like other carcinogens, the effects of arsenic on the human body are not just short term and often take years of decades to show themselves.

Apple Juice and Arsenic The EPA sets the permissible level of arsenic at 10 ppb (part per billion) though some countries and even some municipalities here in the U.S. have lowered the permissible level further. With arsenic being so pervasive in everything from soil to drinking and seawater, it is not difficult to see how some amount is getting into the food we eat, but what about elevated levels of arsenic in foods? Which foods and how is this happening?

Many of you may remember the Dr. Oz episode where they tested several brands of apple juice and found alarmingly high levels of arsenic. Shortly afterward, Consumer Reports performed a similar study that showed similar results.[3] At the time, there were no FDA limits on the amount of arsenic in apple juice, but thanks to the exposure of this issue there is now a standard in place, the same 10 ppb limit as is allowed in drinking water.

There are two main takeaways from this. First, while the testing used could, and was, criticized, subsequent testing by Consumer Reports and the FDA did show elevated levels of arsenic in the juice, just not as high was what was presented on the show. Second, if nothing else, it raised awareness of not just the issue of arsenic in this particular type of food but started a conversation about food supply safety as a larger topic.

Though I will touch on this more in the second half, but as it relates to apple juice, it's key to remember where this product is made but more importantly where the ingredients of product originate. Ever notice the language "made from concentrate" on your bottle of juice? Unlike fresh squeezed orange juice, this language means that somewhere, apples were pressed and squeezed, then likely treated with enzymes and clarified (filtered) then dehydrated, packaged and sold to juice producers. Most of us probably think that the countless bottles of apple juice (and other juices too since apple juice is actually the base of most juice cocktails and mixes) Orchard Runoff Is Still Primary Sources of Arsenic Exposure are made from freshly pulverized apples grown right here in the U.S. That would have been true a few decades ago, but not anymore.

Of the 70+ million tons of apples produced every year on this planet, only about 10% are sold as the raw fruit that you see sitting in the produce section of the grocery store. Currently, the largest producer of apples in the world is China, and one of their biggest clients? You guessed it, the United States.[4] The U.S. imports nearly 85% of the apple juice and concentrate it uses for apple juice, with the vast majority of that coming from China.

While apples can be stored commercially, in climate controlled environments for months at a time, it is a curious fact that China mainly exports things like apple concentrate at a far greater rate than whole apples. From Europe to the U.S. there have consistently been concerns over quality, but anyone who's worked in food production can tell you that the quality standards for a whole food vs. those of processed food are not equal.

Even here in the U.S. you see this distinction with milk. Grade A milk is what you see in the plastic jug at your grocery store. A lesser grade milk is produced, but it's not discarded. Where do you think cheese often comes from? Grade B milk. This is similar to what you see with apples. If the quality is high, it's more likely that it will be sold as a whole apple, but if the quality is lower it's not discarded. It is often turned into concentrate or juice.

This is just one example, but as the food supply chain becomes increasingly globalized, the case of arsenic in apple juice highlights not only the global nature of what we're putting on the dinner table but exposes the shortcomings of food inspections, research and the lack of standards from one country to the next. It's a topic I've mentioned before, and one that won't be going away anytime soon.

Check back in a few days for the second half of this post where I will go into the issue of arsenic in rice, problems surrounding food inspections on an international level and ultimately what's being done nationally to address this and future problems.


1 EPA Arsenic in Water
2 EPA Arsenical Registration
3 Consumer Reports
4 USDA Apple Export/Imports

Author: K. Gilmore

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