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CU letter to USDA regarding arsenic in rice

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September 20, 2012

Secretary Tom Vilsack
United States Department of Agriculture
Room 200, Jamie L. Whitten Building
12th Street and Jefferson Drive SW
Washington, DC 20250

Dear Secretary Vilsack:

Consumers Union, the public policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, is writing to share our concerns about exposure to arsenic from food sources, particularly rice. Consumer Reports has just released an article, which will appear in its November 2012 issue, involving findings on arsenic levels in rice and rice-based products. Virtually all of the more than 60 products tested had measurable amounts of inorganic arsenic, which is a known carcinogen, along with organic arsenic, which is less toxic but still of concern.

Consumer Reports is making several recommendations to government policymakers to help reduce arsenic levels in rice and rice products. While rice and rice products are not the only food source with measurable levels of arsenic (see our January 2012 Consumer Reports article on arsenic in apple juice), rice does absorb arsenic from soil and water much more effectively than most plants. As you know, it is one of the only major crops grown in water-flooded conditions, which allows arsenic to be more easily absorbed in the roots and stored in the grains.

Unfortunately, the U.S. leads the world in arsenic use. Despite being banned in the 1980s, lead-arsenate insecticides still linger in agricultural soil today. In addition, arsenic-containing drugs can still be given to livestock to prevent disease and promote growth.

While we appreciate the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Agricultural Research Service’s (ARS) current work addressing arsenic in rice, we urge you to expand the research on techniques to mitigate arsenic uptake in rice, and on types of rice that absorb less arsenic. We are hopeful that this research will help reduce the amount of arsenic that ends up in the rice supply, thereby helping to protect consumers from chronic exposure to this known carcinogen.

We also urge USDA to help end the use of arsenic-containing manure on rice by educating farmers as to the risks and alternatives through Agricultural Extension and other programs.

In addition, we respectfully request that USDA review the manure standards in the National Organic Program. Specifically, we request that USDA permit only manure from organic operations to be used in organic food production. In addition, USDA should issue standards for arsenic in manure used on rice fields; manure has been reported to have arsenic levels as high as 40,000 ppb.1

We appreciate your consideration of our concerns. The complete results of our tests are attached.

Sincerely,

Urvashi Rangan, Ph.D.
Director, Consumer Safety and Sustainability

Ami Gadhia
Senior Policy Counsel

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(1) Webb Jr KE and JP Fontenot. 1975. Medicinal drug residues in broiler litter and tissues from cattle fed litter. Journal of Animal Science, 41(4): 1212?1217.