Editorial: Arsenic in our food: What is acceptable?

Lisa Yates @Lisa_editor

In the July 5 issue of Gonzales Weekly Citizen, I wrote about arsenic used in the poultry industry in my column entitled: "We can change the food system every time we eat a meal."

That column ran in GateHouse Media newspapers across the country, including one in the Los Angeles area where it was read by Tonia Pyle who hosts and produces a syndicated radio show for Family Radio.

Tonia called and asked me to be a guest on her show to talk about the article which mentioned an experience I had interviewing an attorney working on a case exposing the poultry industry's practice of mixing cancer-causing arsenic into chicken feed and fertilizer.

You can listen to a recording of the interview on our Facebook site at http://www.facebook.com/#!/WeeklyCitizen. You can also read the article at www.weeklycitizen.com.

Most recently, CBS News, Fox News and other broadcast news stations ran a similar story about arsenic in rice.

The story was based on a report by Consumers Union, publisher of the magazine Consumer Reports, calling for federal standards limiting amounts of arsenic in rice.

Consumer Reports found levels up to 8.7 micrograms of inorganic arsenic per serving of rice.

First of all, there's a difference between organic and inorganic arsenic.

Arsenic is naturally present in water, air, food and soil in two forms: Organic and inorganic. Inorganic arsenic – the type found in pesticides can be toxic and is a known carcinogen.

Second, 8.7 micrograms seems pretty high compared to what is allowed in drinking water. For example, New Jersey's drinking water has one of the strictest standards in the country regarding arsenic – allowing a maximum of 5 micrograms in a liter of water.

Yes, it is unclear just how accurate it is to compare arsenic levels in water and arsenic levels in rice given people consume more water than rice. However, I would prefer that we don't allow ANY arsenic in drinking water, rice, chicken or anything else we consume. And I especially don't want the inorganic kind in anything we eat or drink, period.

That's where the Food and Drug Administration and I disagree. The FDA allows it in our food. In fact, there are no federal standards for how much arsenic is allowed in food.

According to the FDA, organic arsenic passes through the body quickly and is essentially harmless. Seriously? Haven't folks been prosecuted for putting arsenic in people's food?

Officials representing Consumers Union said they aren't trying to alarm rice eaters, but instead wish to educate people. They said it's especially important for parents because most feed their babies rice cereal.

The study found higher levels of arsenic in brown rice than white rice, a result of how the two different types are processed. It also found higher levels in rice produced in Southern U.S. states than rice from California or Asia.

I watched a video of the CBS News report which played on our website. During the interview a spokesperson from Consumers Union told the reporter that many Southern rice fields were once old cotton fields which had been treated by years of arsenic-containing insecticide. The toxins stayed in the soil and are now being passed to the rice.

That's why organic farming methods are so important. It's not that the food is more nutritious, but rather nontoxic. Even though organic costs more, it's better for your health and better for the planet as a whole.

Let me go on record stating that I love rice. In fact, rice with gravy is perhaps my favorite meal. I'm not telling you to avoid rice, but instead I want the FDA to set some standards so we can enjoy it safely.

When interviewed about the story, FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg said consumers shouldn't stop eating rice. But also she encouraged a diversified diet, just in case.

Lisa Yates is the editor of Gonzales Weekly Citizen. Follow her on Twitter @Lisa_editor.