Lots of people were shocked to hear about a recent study that found arsenic in foods made with organic brown rice syrup. But this is not a problem that’s isolated to a specific ingredient, or to organic food. As Dr. Oz fans know, concerns about arsenic contamination have been emerging in different sections of the grocery store – in apple juice, the meat case (arsenic has been fed to chickens for decades), and now in the processed food aisles.
When it comes to a problem like arsenic contamination in food, there’s no quick solution for consumers. Consumers can’t see, taste or smell if arsenic is in their food. This new report about processed foods containing organic brown rice syrup offers just the latest example of why consumers need the government to set standards for arsenic levels in food.
The recent study focused on processed foods like cereal bars, “high energy foods” used by athletes, and infant formula that use organic brown rice syrup as a sweetener, often as an alternative to high fructose corn syrup. The authors pointed to a growing body of research on arsenic contamination in rice, and said they wanted to see if processed foods containing rice-based ingredients were a source of exposure to arsenic. When they tested these foods for arsenic, they found arsenic in many of them.
So, how does arsenic get into food anyway? In the case of chicken, producers sometimes add an arsenic-based drug to chicken feed so that they grow faster and have pinker meat. The arsenic fed to chickens ends up in the billions of pounds of poultry waste produced and spread across fields as fertilizer each year, which can contaminate soil and water, and some can stay behind in the chickens themselves.
In apple juice and rice, arsenic gets taken up from the environment by the apple tree or the rice plant. Arsenic might be in the soil naturally or it could be left behind from the use of arsenic-based pesticides, herbicides, and wood preservatives. In the United States, many of these arsenic-based chemicals have not been used for decades – but the arsenic remains in the soil. This “legacy contamination” serves as a long-lasting reminder of the consequences of weak regulation of chemicals. And it can cause problems for food produced in these areas, even with organic methods that don’t use synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.
So what does this mean for consumers?
It means we can’t ignore environmental contamination in places where we grow food, whether that food is cultivated by conventional or organic methods. Some experts are calling for mapping soil and groundwater arsenic levels in farming areas, and guidelines for what areas to avoid for crops known to take up arsenic.
It means that consumers should understand that while organic food is produced under much tighter standards than conventional agriculture, there is no silver bullet for dealing with contamination in the environment where we grow food. But organic agriculture does offer a way forward that minimizes environmental harm because the rules for organic production do not allow the use of synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, genetically modified ingredients, irradiation, sewage sludge, or feeding arsenic to chickens.
And it means that we need to take action not just as consumers but also as citizens. The problem of arsenic contamination of food is hard to solve at the grocery store. We need regulators like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to set standards for arsenic levels in food.