Arsenic in Your Rice

There’s arsenic in your rice — and here’s how it got there

By Twilight Greenaway  Thanks to

Photo by Shutterstock.   Thanks to www.Grist.orgRice. It’s just one of the basics, right? Whether eaten on its own, or in products like pastas or cereal, this inexpensive and healthy food is a staple for Asian and Latino communities, as well as the growing number of people looking to avoid gluten.Here’s the bad news (cue Debbie Downer sound effect): The food most of us think we have more or less locked down is shockingly high in arsenic. And arsenic, especially the inorganic form often found in rice, is a known carcinogen linked to several types of cancer, and believed to interfere with fetal development.

According to new research by the Consumers Union, which took over 200 samples of both organic and conventionally grown rice and rice products, nearly all the samples contained some level of arsenic, and a great deal of them contained enough to cause alarm. While there is no federal standard for arsenic in food, according to the Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, one serving of rice may have as much inorganic arsenic as an entire day’s worth of water. (They’ve also created a useful chart of various rice products, rice brands, and their arsenic levels.)

Rice often readily absorbs arsenic from soil where chemical-heavy cotton once grew. (Photo by Shutterstock.)

How does rice compare to other grains like wheat and oats? It turns out it’s much higher because of two main factors: How and where rice is grown. The November issue of Consumer Reports, released today, breaks down both phenomena. First, the how:

Rice absorbs arsenic from soil or water much more effectively than most plants. That’s in part because it is one of the only major crops grown in water-flooded conditions, which allow arsenic to be more easily taken up by its roots and stored in the grains.

Then, the where:

In the U.S. as of 2010, about 15 percent of rice acreage was in California, 49 percent in Arkansas, and the remainder in Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, and Texas. That south-central region of the country has a long history of producing cotton, a crop that was heavily treated with arsenical pesticides for decades in part to combat the boll weevil beetle.

Not a big rice eater? Well, I’d argue this study matters for other reasons too; it illustrates what a long shadow industrial farming practices can cast over the entire food system — and the way some chemicals can cycle through our food and water, for literally generations. You see, in some areas, even rice grown organically is impacted because of what you might call the legacy of the soil.

For decades, farmers used lead-arsenate insecticides to control pests. As the name implies, these were extra dangerous because of their lead content and they were banned in the 1980s, but much of the arsenic that was left behind still remains in the soil. As Consumer Reports mentioned above, the worst offenders were cotton farms in the South, which relied heavily on these heavy-metal-containing chemicals. (Cotton farming, generally, is known to be some of the most “chemically dependent” farming on Earth.)

Click to embiggen.

There are still several non-lead-based arsenical pesticides on the market, and although most are in the process of being phased out, Michael Hansen, Consumers Union senior scientist, says there is still one important pesticide, called MSMA, in use on cotton farms. Ironically, Hansen says, “they’re allowing its use because of the increasing problem of Palmer pigweed — created by the overuse of Glyphosate [Roundup] due to [Roundup Ready] GMO seeds.” (Otherwise known as superweeds.) “Palmer pigweed can lead to a 25 percent-or-more loss of revenue in cotton. So federal regulators calculated that it was worth the risk to continue using arsenic herbicides.”

Arsenic has also been commonly used in animal feed to prevent disease and make both hogs and chickens grow faster. The manure from these farms also ultimately ends up adding arsenic back in the soil (it’s even permitted on organic farms). Hansen says he’s seen ample evidence that soils that have been treated with poultry manure for years “have significantly higher levels of arsenic than untreated soil.”

On the bright side, a new law in Maryland, a huge poultry farming state, will keep arsenic feed out of chicken farms there. And one poultry drug, Pfizer’s Roxarsone, was voluntarily withdrawn from the market last spring. Meanwhile there are three others are still allowed to be used outside Maryland. “We think the Food and Drug Administration [FDA] should ban those as well,” said Hansen.

In the press release associated with the study, Consumers Union recommended that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) phase out use of all arsenical pesticides and the FDA set limits for arsenic in rice products. In response to Wednesday’s report, the FDA released an FAQ on its website describing its own testing of 1,000 different rice products. FDA officials also told the Washington Post, however, that they are “not prepared, based on preliminary data, to advise people to change their eating patterns.”

The Consumers Union, on the other hand, has a released a chart explicitly designed to help consumers limit their exposure to rice, with exact serving recommendations for both adults and children. Rice cereal, which federal surveys indicate many small children eat multiple times a day, is of special concern.

According to Hansen, rice grown in California (a relatively small subset of the U.S. industry), is also likely to have lower arsenic rates than rice grown in the South. For those interested in reducing their risk, the scientist also recommends washing the grain thoroughly before cooking it, and using a technique Hansen has observed in Asia.

“When I was in Bangladesh recently I noticed they would cook the rice with a lot of extra water — to absorb arsenic and/or pesticide residue — and then drain it off at the very end before serving it.” Hansen says this technique, over time, especially if filtered water is used, may reduce the risk of exposure to the heavy metal.

Twilight is the food editor at Grist. Follow her on twitter.

Arsenic in Chickens and Rice

Waiter, There’s Arsenic in My Rice

—By   Thanks to Mother Jones

| Wed Sep. 19, 2012 3:00 AM PDT
So simple, and yet so complicated Tamaki/Flickr

As I’ve reported before, the US poultry industry has a disturbing habit of feeding arsenic to chickens. Arsenic, it turns out, helps control a common bug that infects chicken meat, and also gives chicken flesh a pink hue, which the industry thinks consumers want. Is all that arsenic making it into our food supply? It appears to be doing so—both in chicken meat and in, of all things, rice. In a just released report, Consumer Reports says it found significant levels of arsenic in a variety of US rice products—including in brown rice and organic rice, and in rice-based kids’ products like cereal and even baby formula. Driving the point home, CR‘s analysis of a major population study found that people who consume a serving of rice get a 44 percent spike in the arsenic level in their urine.

Rice is particularly effective at picking up arsenic from soil, CR reports, “in part because it is one of the only major crops grown in water-flooded conditions, which allow arsenic to be more easily taken up by its roots and stored in the grains.”

Arsenic, CR reports, is classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as a “group 1” carcinogen—meaning that it’s among the globe’s most potent cancer inducers. And getting regular exposure to even small amounts of it can be troubling. Here’s CR:


No federal limit exists for arsenic in most foods, but the standard for drinking water is 10 parts per billion. Keep in mind: That level is twice the 5 ppb that the EPA originally proposed and that New Jersey actually established. Using the 5 ppb standard in our study, we found that a single serving of some rices could give an average adult almost one and a half times the inorganic arsenic he or she would get from a whole day’s consumption of water, about 1 liter.

So what does arsenic-laced rice have to do with feeding arsenic to chicken? Well, it’s impossible to tell the ultimate source of the arsenic that gets taken up by rice, and it’s true, as the US Rice Federation says on its web site, that it is “a naturally occurring element in soil and water.” But as Nature reported in 2005, US rice carries “1.4 to 5 times more arsenic than rice from Europe, India and Bangladesh.” What gives? Here in the United States, we’ve added massive amounts of arsenic to the environment over the decades. How much? Here’s Consumer Reports:

The U.S. is the world’s leading user of arsenic, and since 1910, about 1.6 million tons have been used for agricultural and industrial purposes, about half of it only since the mid-’60s.

Much of that came in the form of arsenate pesticides, which until they were banned in the 1980s were commonly used on cotton fields—where, according to Consumer Reports, residues of those pesticides linger today. And US cotton and rice price production have significant overlap in the mid-South region. “Quite a lot of land in Mississippi and Arkansas that previously grew cotton is now used for rice cultivation,” Nature reports. And indeed, when rice first began to be grown on former cotton land, the crop did poorly, laid low by “an arsenic-induced disease known as straighthead,” Nature reports. Rather than encourage farmers to abandon the project of growing a food crop in arsenic-rich soil, CR adds, USDA “invested in research to breed types of rice that can withstand arsenic.” Of course, breeding rice varieties that could survive in arsenic-rich soil also meant breeding rice that could take up plenty of arsenic.

But residues from a long-banned pesticide aren’t the only source of arsenic in rice country. Industrial-scale poultry farming, with its long-time reliance on arsenic-laced feed, provides another. Consider this map of depicting the concentration of industrial-scale chicken farming, prepared by Food and Water Watch. (The darker the color, the higher the density of poultry facilities, with the color red denoting “extreme” concentration.)

Geographical concentration of poultry production.  Food & Water WatchGeographical concentration of poultry production Food & Water Watch

Now look at this USDA map showing US rice production.

US rice production.  USDAUS rice production USDA

As you can see, both have overlap in the Central California and mid-South regions. Now, the arsenic in poultry feed is in its non-toxic organic state. But it can transform into the carcinogenic inorganic state both in the chickens’ guts and also in the environment, when arsenic-laced manure comes into contact with the elements. “Arsenic in poultry manure is rapidly converted into an inorganic form that is highly water soluble and capable of moving into surface and ground water,” write Keeve E. Nachman and Robert S. Lawrence of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future.

“Chicken litter: smell of success,” declares a 2010 headline in Delta Farm Press, a trade journal, in an article on the practice of using chicken litter on Arkansas rice farms.

And to get rid of the massive amounts of poultry litter generated by concentrated farming, the poultry industry applies as much of it as possible to nearby fields as a fertilizer—where arsenic accumulates in the soil, a 2010 study by USDA researchers found.

And not surprisingly, large-scale rice farmers make use of “chicken litter”—chicken manure, plus bedding and spilled feed—as a fertilizer. Precise figures on just how much chicken litter ends up in rice fields don’t exist, because the federal government doesn’t track the practice.

But anecdotal evidence suggests it’s common. “Chicken litter: smell of success,” declares a 2010 headline in Delta Farm Press, a trade journal, in an article on the practice of using chicken litter on Arkansas rice farms. Rice farmers there commonly use the stuff at a rate of between one and three tons per acre, Delta Farm Press reports. In this 2007 paper, a USDA scientist declares that the stuff improves “overall rice growth and yield,” and also boosts “tillering,” which is the ability of rice plants to grow grain-bearing branches. And a 2010 study by the Mississippi Agriculture Extension reports that as synthetic fertilizer prices rise, “more and more growers” are turning to the state’s abundant supply of chicken litter.

And arsenic can make its way from factory chicken house to rice field by leaching into irrigation water. According to Food and Water Watch, in another poultry intensive region, the Delmarva peninsula that forms Chesapeake Bay, arsenic is routinely found in household wells, at “up to 13 times the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) tolerance limit.” Thankfully, no rice is produced in the Delmarva area, but as the above map shows, the rice-growing in the mid-South region has a similar concentration of poultry farming.

Now, unfortunately, chicken litter from large industrial operations is also commonly used as fertilizer on organic farms—which may explain why several organic products, like Lundberg brand short-grain organic brown rice (which I have in my pantry, via the bulk section of my local food co-op), appeared on CR‘s list with relatively high levels of arsenic. To its credit, however, Lundberg Family Farms, a major California producer of organic rice, is taking the issue seriously—it is “testing more than 200 samples of the many varieties of rice in its supply chain and plans to share the results with FDA scientists,” CR reports. The conventional rice industry, meanwhile, is mostly in denial, though USA Rice Federation did tell Consumer Reports that it is “working with the FDA and the EPA as they examine and assess arsenic levels in food and has supplied rice samples to those agencies for research.”

What’s the takeaway from all of this? To avoid excessive exposure to arsenic, Consumer Reports recommends that adults limit their rice intake to two quarter-cup servings per week; children, they say, should get just 1.25 servings per week. In the long term, Urvashi Rangan, director of safety and sustainability at Consumer Reports, told me, “what we’d really like to see happen is for the FDA to get serious about getting arsenic out of chicken feed.” So far, the agency has been working with the ag-pharmaceutical industry to “voluntarily” stop the practice, but there remain dozens of arsenic-based feed additives approved for use on poultry, she said.

FDA admits arsenic fed to chickens

FDA admits supermarket chickens test positive for arsenic

by Tom Laskawy

8 Jun 2011 5:08 PM

Chicken breasts. Why is Big Ag playing chicken with our health?Back in March, Tom Philpott wrote about the “insane” practice of feeding factory-farmed chickens arsenic:

The idea is that it makes them grow faster — fast growth being the supreme goal of factory animal farming — and helps control a common intestinal disease called coccidiosis.The industry emphasizes that the arsenic is applied in organic form, which isn’t immediately toxic. “Organic” in the chemistry sense, that is, not the agricultural sense — i.e., molecules containing carbon atoms as well as arsenic. Trouble is, arsenic shifts from organic to inorganic rather easily. Indeed, “arsenic in poultry manure is rapidly converted into an inorganic form that is highly water soluble and capable of moving into surface and ground water,” write Keeve E. Nachman and Robert S. Lawrence of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future.

Inorganic arsenic is the highly poisonous stuff — see the absurd and wonderful Cary Grant classic Arsenic and Old Lace, or the EPA’s less whimsical take here and here [PDF]. The fact that the organic arsenic added to feed turns inorganic when it makes its way into manure is chilling, given the mountains of concentrated waste generated by factory poultry farms.

One way farmers add arsenic to chicken feed is through drugs such as Pfizer’s Roxarsone. And the industry has (as with most of its worst practices) strenuously defended the use of such additives. While the USDA has by and large ignored the risks (mostly in the form of an unwillingness to look for arsenic in chicken), finally — astonishingly — the FDA has acted.

According to the Associated Press, the FDA has confirmed that chickens given the drug (frequently those destined for the low-cost supermarket shelf) do indeed test positive for inorganic arsenic — just as the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy found [PDF] back in 2006. Despite this earlier evidence, the industry had continued to steadfastly maintain that the arsenic could not and did not make it into the meat.

As part of its announcement, the FDA said the arsenic levels are low and represent no meaningful risk to those eating Roxarsone-treated chicken — a point predictably emphasized by the National Chicken Council.

Tellingly, Pfizer announced that it would withdraw Roxarsone from the market starting next month. The FDA didn’t order Pfizer to withdraw the drug — the company did so voluntarily.

Of course, this does not solve the problem of arsenic in chicken. As Michael Hansen of Consumers Union observed in a press release, “There are several other arsenic-containing drugs for animals that are on the market, and those should also be withdrawn or banned, as they have been in the European Union.”

As Food & Water Watch reported in March, “between 2000 and 2008, the USDA tested only 1 out of every 12 million domestically produced chickens.” So it’s not as if the government is tracking this problem in any systematic way.

It boggles my mind that the industry is so willing to risk consumer panic over this issue and wait for the media or government officials to force its hand. Instead of making smart business decisions and ending dangerous practices that might give consumers cause to avoid their product, they instead try to hold back the tide. One drug gets withdrawn while others remain. The FDA tests 100 chickens (as they did in this latest test), while millions are produced and sold every year.

It’s no wonder that the so-called “ag-gag” bills remain popular among industrial farmers and their political lackeys. They can’t seem to let go of consumer ignorance as a key business strategy. With arsenic in chicken, the FDA, the USDA, and the chicken industry seem to care far more about the perception of having acted rather than the reality of ensuring all chicken sold in the U.S. is free from this toxic substance.

Tom covers food and agricultural policy for Grist. Follow him on Twitter.

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