Bad news keeps surfacing for healthy-minded consumers when it comes to potential contaminants in their food. According to a new study by Dartmouth College, organic baby formula and products with brown rice syrup were found to contain levels of arsenic far surpassing the Environmental Protection Agency's safe limits for drinking water.
To learn how natural and organic industry players are dealing with the issue—which comes on the heels of highly publicized news about arsenic in apple juice, including organic brands—we spoke to Grant Lundberg, CEO of well-respected organic rice producer Lundberg Family Farms, who was busy fielding a TV interview.
“For us, this is a very important health and safety issue," he said. "This is a new piece of research that has come out—but there has been other research talking about different foods, and some research on rice. So the research community is starting to fill in this question. As a company, we are advocating continuing research so we can understand what this means."
“We’re advocating that the FDA set up guidelines for this. There are no guidelines [for foods or beverages]," he said. "As you know, there’s arsenic in seafood, in other vegetables and grains, in air and water. As each study comes out, we learn more, but there’s nobody connecting the dots, and that makes it hard to put in perspective."
In the wake of the earlier apple juice news, he said, “I think there’s an opportunity here for industry and academia to join together. In fact, the researchers advocate that the FDA step in and set up tolerances.”
Lundberg said he’d been busy reaching out to retailers, direct customers and consumers. He said the company currently does not test for arsenic. “There’s exposure to arsenic throughout our environment—air, water, food—and it’s a question of where does this [study's research] fit in?”
What should consumers do?
Dartmouth researchers found that two Nature's One baby formulas with brown rice syrup had arsenic levels more than 20 times greater than each of the 15 formulas that didn’t contain brown rice syrup, reported The Boston Globe. The two products are Baby’s Only Organic Dairy Toddler Formula and Baby’s Only Organic Soy Toddler Formula.
Nature's One responded in a statement that it "uses a qualified, world renowned, third-party, independent lab to test arsenic levels in their organic brown rice syrup" and that those testing results report "undetectable amounts of arsenic at laboratory testing limits."
So what should concerned parents do? Pediatrician and Healthy Child Healthy World board member Alan Greene, MD, wrote in a blog: “I recommend that rice not be the primary source of calories for babies, and that whatever rice they do get comes primarily from California and/or is adequately tested for arsenic (with technology at least able to detect 10 ppb). Avoid conventional rice from countries still using arsenical pesticides.”
Greene noted that, "rice is the main dietary source of arsenic for many Americans. Whatever arsenic is present can be concentrated in rice syrups. And babies are more susceptible than adults to arsenic and other toxins.”
Organic agriculture will reduce arsenic in the environment, experts say
While the study temporarily casts a negative light on organic products, natural proponents should rest easy knowing that organic production practices are the solution to reducing arsenic in our food, said Christine Bushway, the Organic Trade Association's (OTA) executive director and CEO. The OTA is organizing a task force to address the issue within the organic industry.
Charles Benbrook, Chief Scientist at The Organic Center, said arsenic is neither uncommon in the food supply nor unique to rice. To prevent future exposure, Benbrook said the food industry should map arsenic-contaminated soils and groundwater and avoid planting crops there that are known to extract arsenic from these resources. For example, California-grown rice has much less arsenic.
“The arsenic in the study likely came from arsenical pesticides leftover from decades of chemical farming," Greene said. "They were used on conventional cotton throughout the southern U.S., and the arsenic remains in the soil long afterwards—even after switching the fields to rice and switching to organic farming methods."
Greene also urged the FDA to act: “This new study underlines the need for the FDA to set safety levels for arsenic in food and beverages. The EPA has set 10 ppb as the level for inorganic arsenic in drinking water… I will welcome safety limits for arsenic in food and beverages that take the health of babies and pregnant women into account.”