WASHINGTON -- The Food and Drug Administration may consider new standards for levels of arsenic in rice, as consumer groups are calling for federal guidance on how much of the carcinogen can be present in food.
So far, FDA officials say they have found no evidence that suggests rice is unsafe to eat. The agency has studied the issue for decades but is amid a new study of 1,200 samples of grocery-store rice products -- short and long-grain rice, adult and baby cereals, drinks and even rice cakes -- to measure arsenic levels.
Rice is thought to have arsenic in higher levels than most other foods because it is grown in water on the ground, optimal conditions for the contaminant to be absorbed in the rice. There are no federal standards for how much arsenic is allowed in food.
Arsenic is naturally present in water, air, food and soil in two forms, organic and inorganic. The FDA says organic arsenic passes quickly through the body and is essentially harmless. Inorganic arsenic, in some pesticides and insecticides, can be toxic and may pose a cancer risk if consumed at high levels or for a long period.
FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, a physician, says consumers shouldn't stop eating rice, though she does encourage a diverse diet just in case.
The agency on Wednesday released 200 of an expected 1,200 samples after the magazine Consumer Reports released its own study and called for federal standards for arsenic in rice. The FDA will not finish its study until year's end, Dr. Hamburg said, and cannot draw any conclusions from the results until then.
Both studies show relatively similar arsenic levels in rice. It is almost impossible to say how perilous these levels are without a federal benchmark.
Consumer Reports uses New Jersey's drinking-water standard -- a maximum of 5 micrograms in a liter of water -- as comparison because it is one of the strictest in the nation. But it is unclear how accurate it is to compare arsenic levels in water and arsenic levels in rice; most people consume more water than rice, so drinking-water standards may need to be tougher.
Urvashi Rangan of Consumer Reports says the group is not trying to alarm rice eaters, but to educate them to diversify their diets. The industry group USA Rice Federation said U.S. rice growers do not use pesticides with arsenic. "We understand that 'arsenic' is an alarming word, but we believe it is important for consumers to know that arsenic is a naturally occurring element in our air, water, rocks and soil."