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FDA eyeing new limits on arsenic in rice

In this file photo, combines harvest rice in

In this file photo, combines harvest rice in a field near Alicia, Ark. Consumer groups are pressuring the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to set federal guidance on allowable levels of arsenic in rice, prompting the agency to consider possible new standards. (Sept. 22, 2011) Credit: AP

The Food and Drug Administration may consider new standards for the levels of arsenic in rice as consumer groups are calling for federal guidance on how much of the carcinogen can be present in food.

So far, FDA officials say they have found no evidence that suggests rice is unsafe to eat. The agency has studied the issue for decades but is in the middle of conducting a new study of 1,200 samples of grocery-store rice products -- short and long-grain rice, adult and baby cereals, drinks and even rice cakes -- to measure arsenic levels.

Rice is thought to have arsenic in higher levels than most other foods because it is grown in water on the ground, optimal conditions for the contaminant to be absorbed in the rice. There are no federal standards for arsenic levels in food.

Arsenic is naturally present in water, air, food and soil in two forms, organic and inorganic. According to the FDA, organic arsenic passes through the body quickly and is essentially harmless. Inorganic arsenic -- the type found in some pesticides and insecticides -- can be toxic and may pose a cancer risk if consumed at high levels or over a long period.

How much organic and inorganic arsenic rice eaters are consuming, and whether those levels are dangerous, still remains to be seen.

FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg says consumers shouldn't stop eating rice, though she does encourage a diverse diet just in case.

The agency Wednesday released 200 of an expected 1,200 samples after the magazine Consumer Reports released its own study and called for federal standards for arsenic in rice. The FDA will not complete its study until the end of the year, Hamburg said and cannot draw any conclusions until then.

Both studies show relatively similar levels of arsenic in rice. Consumer Reports, with 223 samples, found levels up to 8.7 micrograms. That is roughly equivalent to one gram of arsenic in 115,000 servings of rice.

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