It’s official: There’s a limit on how much arsenic can be in your baby’s cereal.
The US Food and Drug Administration issued its final guidance on limiting the levels of inorganic arsenic found in infant rice cereal on Wednesday – capping the level of arsenic allowable at 100 parts per billion. That’s the same level it proposed in 2016.
The guidance applies to all types of infant rice cereals: White, brown, organically grown and conventionally grown rice, the agency said.
The action prompted immediate criticism from consumer advocacy groups.
Consumer Reports, which has studied levels of arsenic and other toxic metals in baby food, applauded the FDA for its action but wanted more.
“The FDA’s action is an important first step, but the agency needs to be far more aggressive in protecting young children from the dangers of arsenic and other heavy metals in food,” said Brian Ronholm, the director of food policy for Consumer Reports, in a statement.
“Parents can take a number of steps to limit their child’s exposure to heavy metals in food, but they should be able to expect that the government is putting public health first,” said Michael Hansen, senior scientist for Consumer Reports, in the statement.
“The FDA should set protective targets for reducing exposure to heavy metals with a goal of having no measurable levels in children’s food,” he added.
Healthy Babies Bright Futures, an alliance of scientists and nonprofit organizations working to reduce babies’ exposures to toxic chemicals in the first 1,000 days of development, was equally critical.
“It is not a large enough step,” said Healthy Babies Bright Futures national director Charlotte Brody, in a statement.
“Setting a standard for the maximum amount of arsenic allowed in baby foods is a start to keeping them safe — but 100 ppb is still far too high,” Brody said. “No amount of arsenic, lead or other toxic heavy metal is safe for babies.”
The FDA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Heavy metals in baby foods
In 2019, Healthy Babies Bright Futures commissioned tests of 168 baby foods from major manufacturers in the United States. The tests found 73% of the baby foods contained arsenic, 95% contained lead, 75% contained cadmium and 32% contained mercury. One fourth of the foods contained all four heavy metals.
The results mimicked a previous study by the FDA that found one or more of the same metals in 33 of 39 types of baby food tested.
The Healthy Babies Bright Futures report found infant rice cereal, rice dishes and rice-based snacks topped the list of most toxic foods for babies.
“These popular baby foods are not only high in inorganic arsenic, the most toxic form of arsenic, but also are nearly always contaminated with all four toxic metals,” the 2017 report said.
“Even in the trace amounts found in food, these contaminants can alter the developing brain and erode a child’s IQ. The impacts add up with each meal or snack a baby eats.”
Dangers of arsenic
Arsenic is a natural element found in soil, water and air, with the inorganic form being the most toxic. (“Inorganic” is a chemical term and has nothing to do with the method of farming.)
Consuming inorganic arsenic has been associated with cancer, skin lesions, cardiovascular diseases and diabetes. Inorganic arsenic has also been linked to adverse pregnancy outcomes and neurodevelopmental toxicity, according to studies.
Because rice is grown in water, it is especially good at absorbing inorganic arsenic and, according to the FDA, has the highest concentration of any food.
Brown and wild rice are the worst offenders, because the milling process used to create white rice removes the outer layers, where much of the arsenic concentrates.
Buying organic doesn’t help. A 2012 study found that brown rice syrup, a frequent sweetener in organic foods, was also a source of significant levels of arsenic. One “organic” milk formula marketed to toddlers had levels of inorganic arsenic that were six times the levels currently considered safe by the US Environmental Protection Agency.
Infants and children are at higher risk of exposure to inorganic arsenic because their diets are often less varied compared to adults, and they consume more food relative to their body weight than adults.
Levels trending down
Agency data shows most products on the market are already below the level it is now recommending, Susan Mayne, director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, said in a statement.
The results from sampling the FDA conducted in 2018 show that 76% of samples were at or below the 100 PPB level, compared to 47% of samples tested in 2014 and 36% of samples tested between 2011 and 2013.
Any infant rice cereal manufacturers who do not meet the new standard can achieve the goal by using good manufacturing practices, the agency said.
In particular, the companies can carefully select the source of the rice and rice-derived ingredients and choose those with lower levels of inorganic arsenic.
According to Healthy Babies Bright Futures, the lowest levels of arsenic are found in basmati rice grown in California, India and Pakistan.
However, Consumer Reports said a 2018 test of 50 packaged foods for babies and toddlers found at least two-thirds had worrisome levels of at least one of three heavy metals: Inorganic arsenic, cadmium, and lead.
Snacks and products containing rice and sweet potatoes were particularly likely to have high levels of heavy metals, the tests found.
Most susceptible children
National diet surveys show that Hispanic infants and toddlers are 2.5 times more likely to eat rice on a given day than other children, according to Healthy Babies Bright Futures, while Asian Americans eat nearly 10 times more rice than the national average.
In addition, the group said, children diagnosed with celiac disease – an intolerance to wheat – often eat rice products instead and thus ingest some 14 times more arsenic than other children.
The risks from heavy metals grow over time, Consumer Reports said, “in part because they accumulate in the kidneys and other internal organs.
“Regularly consuming even small amounts over a long period of time may raise the risk of bladder, lung, and skin cancer; cognitive and reproductive problems; and type 2 diabetes,” the Consumer Reports statement said.
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“In setting this limit, the agency did not consider IQ loss or other forms of neurological impact, allowed cancer risks far outside of protective limits, and failed to account for children who have unusually high exposures to arsenic in rice,” the Healthy Babies Bright Futures statement said.
“This action by the FDA will do little to lower babies’ risks from toxic heavy metals in rice-based foods.”