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Consumer Reports applauds FDA for setting limits on arsenic in infant rice cereal

CR calls for limits on arsenic in other rice products and heavy metals in baby food

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Eight years after Consumer Reports first called attention to the dangerous presence of inorganic arsenic in infant rice cereals, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued guidance today to limit the amount of arsenic allowed in such products.  CR applauded the FDA for taking action and reiterated its concern that limits are still needed on arsenic in other rice-based products and on heavy metals in baby food.

“We’ve known for years that arsenic is found at troubling levels in infant rice cereals and can pose serious health threats to babies regularly exposed to it,” said Brian Ronholm, director of food policy for Consumer Reports.  “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.”

Under the guidance issued today, the FDA has established a limit of 100 parts per billion (ppb) for inorganic arsenic in infant rice cereal–very close to the 90 ppb limit recommended by CR.  Infants and children are especially vulnerable to exposure to arsenic, which can cause damage to a baby’s developing brain even at low levels.  Arsenic has also been proven to increase the risk of developing bladder, lung, and skin cancers, as well as heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

No federal limit exists for inorganic arsenic in most foods.  Since 2012, Consumer Reports has been calling on the FDA to set limits on arsenic in rice and rice products.  Tests conducted by CR that year found varying levels of inorganic arsenic in more than 60 rice and rice products, including worrisome levels in infant cereals.

Consumer Reports found that some infant rice cereals, which are often a baby’s first solid food, had levels of inorganic arsenic at least five times more than has been found in alternatives such as oatmeal.  According to federal data, some infants eat up to two to three servings of rice cereal a day.  Eating rice cereal at that rate, with the highest level of inorganic arsenic CR found in its tests, could result in a risk of cancer twice as high as its experts calculated to be acceptable.

Subsequent tests by Consumer Reports in 2014 found that rice cereal and rice pasta can have much more inorganic arsenic than its previous test showed.  CR concluded that one serving of either could put children over the maximum recommended amount they should have in a week.

Similarly, Consumer Reports tests in 2018 of other packaged foods for babies and toddlers found troubling levels of inorganic arsenic, cadmium, and lead.  CR found that at least two-thirds of the 50 packaged foods it tested had worrisome levels of at least one of these heavy metals.  Fifteen of the foods would pose health risks to a child who regularly ate just one serving or less per day.  Snacks and products containing rice and sweet potatoes were particularly likely to have high levels of heavy metals.

The risks from heavy metals grow over time, 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.

“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, PhD, senior scientist for Consumer Reports.  “The FDA should set protective targets for reducing exposure to heavy metals with a goal of having no measurable levels in children’s food.”

For parents concerned about exposure to heavy metals, Consumer Reports recommends talking with a pediatrician to determine whether their child should be tested.  Parents can reduce exposure by serving their child a broad array of healthful whole foods, limiting the amount of rice cereal in their diet, and being mindful of how much fruit juices they serve.

Michael McCauley: michael.mccauley@consumer.org, 415-902-9537