Researchers at the Finnish Food Safety Authority Evira said its new procedure makes it possible to separate five arsenic compounds commonly found in foods and determine their levels.
Arsenic is a semi-metal that occurs in low levels in nearly all foods. Foodstuffs commonly contain dozens of different arsenic compounds, said scientists from the agency’s Chemistry and Toxicology Research Unit.
Narrow safety margin
Evira said it had initially focused on rice because it is known to contain high levels of inorganic arsenic.
The two arsenic compounds most likely to present health hazards to humans are inorganic arsenite and arsenate – which have been linked with lung, skin and bladder cancer.
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) flagged up concerns when it characterised consumers that eat large quantities of foodstuffs with high levels of inorganic arsenic having "a narrow safety margin".
Results of the research on inorganic arsenic levels found in rice on sale in Finland will be published later this year, said the Finnish agency.
The method advance has been made by using a novel combination of a high-performance liquid chromatograph (HPLC) with an inductive coupled plasma mass spectrometer (ICP-MS). Usually, the instruments are used separately in chemical analysis, said the food safety body.
The agency said the research means it laboratory is the first in Finland capable of determining the inorganic arsenic content in food.
More research needed
The European Union has currently adopted the limit set by the 1993 World Health Organisation (WHO) of 10 µg/l for total permissible concentrations of the substance in drinking water.
But no present limit for the total permissible concentrations of arsenic or inorganic arsenic exists in food under European Union regulations.
Experts, including those from EFSA, have declared that more investigation is needed on inorganic arsenic in foods and consumers' exposure to it as currently little research exists on the subject.
Evira said that the carrying out of risk analysis on arsenic content and setting limits on inorganic arsenic “are not feasible goals unless sufficient research is undertaken on the issue”.
The body has pledged to further develop a similar separation method for analysis of inorganic arsenic levels in a raft of other foods, including cereal grains, shellfish and fish.
“Fish and shellfish have relatively high levels of arsenic, but a significant portion of this is in organic for,” said Evira. “In addition to rice, other cereal grains, most importantly wheat, have been highlighted recently as a source of inorganic arsenic for humans.”