Concerns unwarranted over effects on health from inorganic arsenic in food, consultant says

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FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – Much of the public’s worries over the health effects of inorganic arsenic in foods isn’t warranted and “we wind up with consumers who are confused and concerned,” a prominent food safety and toxicology consultant said at the annual Industry Alliance Meeting of the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture’s Rice Processing Program.

About 120 people from industry and universities across the nation attended the two-day event, May 21-22.

James Coughlin is president of Coughlin & Associates in Aliso Viejo, Calif., holds a Ph.D. in agricultural and environmental chemistry and conducted postdoctoral research in food toxicology. He has previously worked as a safety and regulatory toxicologist for food processing companies. He told the group that consumer and media awareness of the issue was heightened in September 2012 when the federal Food and Drug Administration and Consumer Reports each released tests revealing levels of inorganic arsenic in rice. Since then, he said, “there are some very irresponsible and non-balanced discussions going on.”

“Rice is a safe and nutritious food,” Coughlin said.

Inorganic arsenic is “an unavoidable, naturally occurring trace element” in rice, Coughlin said. Although it is classified as a human carcinogen, it has “a ubiquitous presence in the earth’s crust, soil, air, water and many plant-derived foods, including juices and rice.”

The federal Environmental Protection Agency has standards of allowable levels of arsenic in drinking water, limiting it to 10 parts per billion. While trace parts per billion levels of total arsenic and lesser levels of inorganic and organic arsenic species have been reported in juices, rice and other foods, Coughlin said the FDA has indicated that the average daily intake does not pose a hazard or risk to U.S. consumers.

“There have been no documented incidents in which arsenic in U.S. rice has led to human health problems,” he said. “Many populations that consume up to five times more rice than Americans have lower overall disease rates.”

Coughlin cited a review published last fall by Dr. Samuel M. Cohen of the University of Nebraska Medical Center, who has conducted extensive research on a possible cancer threshold for inorganic arsenic. Cohen has concluded that cancer effects from inorganic arsenic are generally not observed below exposures of 100 to 150 parts per billion in drinking water, far above the EPA’s allowable level.  Such highly contaminated waters in Taiwan, Bangladesh and Chile, where inorganic arsenic has been associated with increased cancer risk, have even approached 100 times the EPA allowable level.

He also noted the FDA’s main message is that “any amount of detectable inorganic arsenic is too low on the rice and rice product samples to cause any immediate or short-term adverse health effects.”

Coughlin called for more attention to a “holistic risk-benefit approach” that would “assess the safety and benefits of the whole food, not just individual food carcinogens and toxicants one by one.”

Also during the day’s presentations, Greg Berger, an assistant professor in the Division’s hybrid rice program, discussed his plans to improve the program’s efficiency. Berger, who is based at the Division’s Rice Research and Extension Center in Stuttgart, joined the faculty in December 2012.

Hybrid rice is first-generation offspring resulting from the cross of two diverse parents, Berger explained, and has a 5 to 25 percent yield advantage over traditional inbred lines. Its positive gains in yield can have a negative effect on the grain quality but it is adaptable to diverse environments.

Berger said he seeks to develop systems that are adapted to the mid-South with an overall goal of identifying cultivars that are adaptable to the area. The Division has entered into collaborative agreements with institutions in other states to aid in developing hybrid rice cultivar production.

In 2013, the program’s emphasis was on improving the agronomic and quality-related traits of sterile lines and developing new breeding populations. The program’s researchers planted experimental hybrids at its winter nursery in Puerto Rico. The goals this year are to increase experimental hybrid numbers and conduct more hybrid-related research. By 2015, Berger said, the goal is to test more than 1,000 hybrids.

The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture offers its programs to all eligible persons regardless of race, color, national origin, religion, gender, age, disability, marital or veteran status, or any other legally protected status, and is an Equal Opportunity Employer.

Contact:

Terry Siebenmorgen, Rice Processing Program
479-575-2841 / tsiebenm@uark.edu

Dave Edmark, Division of Agriculture Communications'
479-575-6940 / dedmark@uark.edu