Arsenic rice study prompts new advice for parents

By Jess Halliday

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Milk, Food standards agency

The UK’s Food Standards Agency is advising that infants are not given rice drinks as a replacement for cows’ milk, breast milk, or infant formula, following a new study that indicates potential to exceed maximum intake of arsenic.

Last year a study published in the journal Environmental Pollution analysed​samples from three brands of pure baby rice formulae from different manufacturers, and found inorganic arsenic levels to range ​from 0.06 to 0.16 mg per kg. According to the scientists, these levels mean some children could be getting six times the recommended maximum level of the carcinogen for their weight.

The FSA said at the time that the study findings did not raise concern and reassured consumers. It did, however, initiate a survey of 60 samples of rice drinks, as part of a wider survey of arsenic in rice and rice products.

It found arsenic in all samples of rice drinks at low concentrations, with an average concentration of 0.023 mg per kg of total arsenic and 0.012 mg per kg of inorganic arsenic was found.

Although these averages are below the levels flagged last year, FSA has now advised caution over their use.

“If toddlers and young children (ages 1 – 4.5 years) consume rice drinks instead of breast milk, infant formula or cows’ milk, the Agency estimates that their intake of inorganic arsenic could be increased by up to four fold if combined intakes for high-level consumption of rice drinks at the mean concentration of inorganic arsenic plus average exposure from the rest of the diet are considered.”

It also gave nutritional grounds as a reason for not substituting rice drinks for other forms of infant nutrition.

Arsenic limits

Arsenic occurs widely in the environment and is present in many foods at low levels. The inorganic form is now understood to cause cancer, by bringing changes to the DNA.

Rice and rice products have higher levels of inorganic arsenic compared with other foods.

In 1959 UK regulations gave a general limit for arsenic in foods at 1mg per kg – although lower levels exist for certain categories. At this time, however, the carcinogenicity of inorganic arsenic was unknown.

The European Food Safety Authority is understood to be conducting a risk assessment of arsenic in food, and its opinion is expected in September.

“Following this, it is possible that EU-wide regulations will be set for arsenic levels in foods,”​ predicts the FSA.

Details of the FSA’s survey of rice drinks is available online. http://www.food.gov.uk/science/surveillance/fsisbranch2009/survey0209

Source of original study on arsenic in rice drinks:

Environmental Pollution​Available online, doi:10.1016/j.envpol.2008.01.043 "Inorganic arsenic levels in baby rice are of concern"​Authors: Andrew Meharg, Guoxin Sun, Paul Williams, Eureka Adomako, Claire Deacon, Yong-Guan Zhu, Joerg Feldmann, Andrea Raab.

Related topics: Policy, Food labelling

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