Dispatches questions child safety of arsenic levels in rice crackers and Rice Krispies

By Annie Harrison-Dunn contact

- Last updated on GMT

'Would it shock you if I told you that rice cake probably has arsenic in it?' Channel 4 asks mothers
'Would it shock you if I told you that rice cake probably has arsenic in it?' Channel 4 asks mothers

Related tags: Rice krispies, Food standards agency

A Channel 4 investigation into inorganic arsenic levels in rice has questioned the safety of products aimed at children like rice cakes and Kellogg's Rice Krispies - although all companies implicated say their levels fall within current recommendations.

The establishment of safe levels for naturally-occurring inorganic arsenic in food is currently being discussed​ by the European Commission, with maximum levels for products designed for children possibly 50% lower than that for the general population.

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These first limits set for food - due next summer - have not yet been finalised but according to tests of 81 different products conducted as part of the UK Channel 4 Dispatches programme and the Queen's University Belfast's Institute for Global Food Security, 58% would exceed the proposed recommended limits for children.

The UK's Food Standards Agency (FSA) told the program that come next year, products exceeding these limits would be taken off the market.

The broadcaster said levels detected ranged from 103 parts inorganic arsenic per billion up to 188 in Kellogg's Rice Krispies, 119 to 162 parts per billion for Boots Baby Organic Rice cakes and 142 to 268 parts per billion for Organix First Wholegrain Baby Rice. It said current proposals for children’s products stood at 100 parts per billion but Kellogg told us there were a number of different proposed limits currently on the table and its cereal was within those of the last it was aware of.

Kellogg, Organix and Boots all told BakeryandSnacks.com its products were thoroughly tested and they were awaiting the Commission's final decision. Kellogg said it would continue to work with government agencies, scientists and others in the food industry at a global level to review the data on the issue, which it called "complex"​. 

Kellogg was quoted as saying its Rice Krispies cereal product would not fall within the category of products for children. The company did not respond to our request for clarification on this point.

Meanwhile, Boots said: "Our standards require the control and monitoring of all ingredients, including substances arising naturally from the soil. The level in Boots Baby Organic Rice Cakes is significantly below the current Codex recommendation, however as a responsible retailer, we are keen to understand more about the proposed changes in regulation and will continue to work closely with our suppliers and regulatory experts to ensure that our baby food is safe and fully comply with any future regulations.”​ 

On the agenda

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Inorganic arsenic levels accumulate in foods like rice through the water supply used to irrigate the fields.

The Commission discussed the proposals in July this year, saying there was a leaning towards harmonized maximum levels for rice products like puffed rice, rice cakes, rice wafers, rice cracker and rice doughnuts since these sometimes showed "very high levels"​ of inorganic arsenic. The maximum levels for such processed
products would be around 15% higher than those for raw ingredients.

“As infants and young children are amongst the most vulnerable groups of consumers, specific maximum levels for milled rice destined for the production of food for infants and young children (about 50% lower) is emerging from the discussions," ​it said.

“Comments from the member states concerned the definition of milled rice and possible control problems related to rice wafers. These will be further covered in the technical discussions in the expert committee which are expected to be finalised in autumn.”

This discussion sits against a backdrop of recently announced advice from the UN and World Health Organisation's food standards body Codex Alimentarius Commission​. 

Proposed limits for children still too high?

Speaking on the program aired this week, Professor Andy Meharg from the Belfast institute said the scale of inorganic arsenic levels in rice he had uncovered over the years was "really quite shocking",​ and

rice milk

added that the proposed EU standard for baby rice and baby food at a hundred parts per billion was still at least two times too high.

He said there was no logic to the current lack of regulation for food since 95% of our exposure came from food, while regulated water contributed 5%.

Beyond puffed rice

The program maker also pointed to rice milk as a source. After conducting a survey on arsenic levels in rice drinks​ – which revealed average concentrations of 0.023 milligram/kilogram of total arsenic and 0.012 milligram/kilogram of inorganic arsenic – FSA advised parents against using rice milk as a substitute for breast milk on both nutrition grounds and due to arsenic exposure. 

The agency said it decided this advice was best displayed on its website, not as mandatory information on pack. Channel 4 said some rice milk manufacturers displayed this voluntarily, while others did not.

Professor of science policy at the University of Sussex, Erik Millstone, suggested this was an example of FSA being too timid” ​in keeping a balance between “the conflicting interests of consumers and producers”.

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