CHICAGO — After tests found worrisome levels of arsenic in American rice last fall, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced it would test 1,000 additional samples by the end of the year and issue recommendations “promptly.”
Nearly 10 months later, the agency has not released the new test results or offered guidelines for consumers. Concerned over the delay, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan and Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, sent separate letters Tuesday to the FDA asking officials to step up the pace.
Madigan’s letter reminded the agency of its commitments and urged it “to take quick action on arsenic in food products,” including setting a limit on arsenic levels in foods, “especially those served to infants and young children.”
“Parents need to be able to make informed choices about what they are feeding their children,” Madigan said in a statement. “The FDA recognizes the seriousness of this issue but has not yet completed its work. I am calling on the FDA once again to take action because further delay only adds to parents’ concerns about whether they’re unknowingly exposing their children to potential health risks.”
The FDA, Consumer Reports and Madigan’s office all released results in September from separate testing efforts that found troubling levels of inorganic arsenic, a carcinogen, in various rice products, especially domestic brown rice.
“The results of these tests raised serious concerns about the levels of inorganic arsenic in some food products, most notably infant rice cereals,” Madigan’s letter states.
The FDA said Tuesday that it could not provide the results of its additional rice tests nor say when it might do so. The agency also declined to say when it might issue recommendations based on those results.
In the fall, the agency said it lacked “adequate scientific basis to recommend changes by consumers regarding their consumption of rice and rice products.”
“We understand that consumers are concerned about this matter. That’s why the FDA has prioritized analyzing arsenic levels in rice,” FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg said in a statement at the time. “Our advice right now is that consumers should continue to eat a balanced diet that includes a wide variety of grains — not only for good nutrition but also to minimize any potential consequences from consuming any one particular food.”
“That advice still stands at the moment,” FDA spokesman Steven Immergut said Tuesday. “When we release the new test results we will look at our advice to consumers and update accordingly.”
Anne Bannville, a spokeswoman for the USA Rice Federation, said that no arsenic-related health effects from eating rice are known and that the group is cooperating with the FDA as it conducts its risk assessment.
“The rice industry is proactively conducting agronomic research to learn more about arsenic uptake by rice plants and we are keeping FDA informed of this,” Bannville added.
Arsenic is found naturally in water and soil as well as in pesticides, animal feed additives and other products. Inorganic arsenic is considered more dangerous than the organic type.
Urvashi Rangan, director of consumer safety and sustainability for the Consumers Union, said she requested the FDA’s test results under the Freedom of Information Act in March but still has not received them.
“With so many different rice products and so many places of origin, it’s important to have this data in order to pinpoint hot spots and courses of action,” Rangan said. “The solution may not be one-size-fits-all, but we have to have the data to come up with solutions and thoughtful solutions. … We certainly want to make sure the data has been quality checked, but we need some kind of time frame.”
The FDA is not currently recommending that people modify how much rice they eat, but its online advisories cite studies that have found thoroughly rinsing rice until the water is clear can reduce arsenic content as much as 25 percent to 30 percent.
Consumer Reports scientists have suggested limiting weekly consumption of cooked rice to no more than one cup for children and one and a half cups for adults. They also say cooking rice like pasta — using extra water and draining it off afterward — can reduce the risk.
Preliminary test results that the FDA and Consumer Reports released in September suggested that fragrant rices such as basmati and jasmine carried some of the lowest levels of inorganic arsenic among the products tested.
In January 2012, Consumer Reports released test results showing that apple juice can contain high levels of inorganic arsenic. Early this year, the FDA submitted proposed guidance on arsenic levels in fruit juice to the U.S. Office of Management and Budget for review, but the office has not yet released them.
U.S. Reps. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., and Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., sent a letter this year to the office saying it is “inexcusable that the guidelines are stalled while consumers continue to be exposed to potentially dangerous levels of arsenic.”