by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Toxins

Jun 15 2021

Beech-Nut recalls, will stop selling, rice cereal

In the latest episode in the ongoing saga of high levels of arsenic in rice cereal marketed to babies, Beech-Nut says it is going out of the rice cereal business.

In addition to issuing the voluntary recall, Beech-Nut has also decided to exit the market for Beech-Nut branded Single Grain Rice Cereal. Beech-Nut is concerned about the ability to consistently obtain rice flour well-below the FDA guidance level and Beech-Nut specifications for naturally occurring inorganic arsenic.

Background: I have been posting about arsenic in rice since 2013.  In 2015, I wrote about how

  • Rice cereals contain higher-than-desirable levels of arsenic.
  • Arsenic gets into rice from natural sources but also from arsenic pesticides.
  • The FDA says these levels do not pose health problems.
  • Consumer Reports recommends not feeding rice cereals to children.
  • The U.S. Rice Federation said the CR recommendation was not supported by science.

In August 2020, the FDA finally set guidelines for upper limits of arsenic in baby foods.  I wrote most recently—in May this year—about pressures on the FDA to set and enforce more rigorous standards and to go beyond its “Closer to Zero” plan to reduce heavy metals in baby foods.

Now the FDA announces the recall of Beech-Nut rice cereal with levels of arsenic that exceed those standards.

The Environmental Working Group asks if you should worry about arsenic in rice.  Its answer: Yes.

Rice, it points out, is a “specifically risky crop. Eating less rice and foods with rice-based ingredients will decrease the amount of arsenic in your body.”

EWG also recommends government actions:

  • Crop monitoring programs
  • Soil testing
  • Elimination of use of sewage sludge as fertilizer (this practice is forbidden in organic foods)
  • Clear communication of risks

At long last, pressures to fix this problem are having an effect.

Lawsuits also might help, as indicated by this item.

Heavy metals in baby food: 86 lawsuits and counting as Beech-Nut decides to exit infant rice cereal category owing to inorganic arsenic concerns:  At least 86 lawsuits have now been filed against firms named in the recent Congressional Subcommittee report on heavy metals in baby food including Beech-Nut Nutrition, which has just announced plans to exit the infant rice cereal category citing difficulties in sourcing rice flour that is consistently below FDA guidance levels for inorganic arsenic…. Read more

May 6 2021

More on toxic metals, this time in Red Sea fish

An article in Food Navigator—Asia got my attention:  “A study by researchers from Saudi Arabia, Egypt and China has found that the levels of iron, chromium, cadmium and nickel in fish caught from the Red Sea exceeded the levels recommended by various authorities such as the EU, FAO, and WHO.”

Heavy metals are not just in baby foods (see post from a couple of days ago).

Now they are a problem in Red Sea fish.

This is no surprise.  Recall the enormous effort needed to  extract the 1300-foot container ship, Ever Given, from the banks of the Suez Canal.

Hundreds of ships going through the Red Sea and the Canal every week, all of them dumping waste water.

An article in the Saudi Journal of Biological Sciences observes that the Red Sea environment is heavily contaminated with heavy metals; these accumulate in fish muscles.

The concentrations of Cr, Fe, Ni and Cd, analyzed in this study were higher than other heavy metals due to the overloading of industrial waste and the disposal of the water from Jeddah. Mn, Cu, and Pb concentrations, however, were far below the levels recommended by various authorities…It was concluded that the fishes captured from Jeddah Coast, Red Sea, are still safe for human consumption, but the amount consumed should be controlled under the FAO/WHO guidelines.

So–it’s up to you to protect yourself from contaminated fish.

How about international shipping policies that restrict what ships can dump into international waters?

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May 4 2021

What is the FDA doing about heavy metals in baby food?

I’ve written previously about the alarming findings of toxic heavy metals in baby foods.  These toxins are in all foods, but are particularly harmful to infants and young children, a situation that calls for immediate FDA action to set limits on the amounts these foods contain.

The FDA has a Q and A on this issue.  It has also issued previous guidance.

In response to many complaints, the FDA has now issued a plan for action:  “Closer to Zero.

Translation: the agency will propose action levels (limits on allowable amounts), consult with stakeholders, finalize the limits, and then evaluate how the whole thing works to reduce intake levels.

Timeline: It plans to do this starting now, with the aim of finishing the process by 2025.

The FDA must not consider limiting toxic metals in baby food to be urgent.

No wonder some members of Congress have introduced la bill to force the FDA to set limits for the most common toxic metals within a year.  It suggests what those limits should be: 10 parts per billion for inorganic arsenic in baby food (15 ppb for cereal); 5 ppb for both cadmium and lead (10 ppb for cereal); and 2 ppb for mercury.

While all this is going on, what are parents to do?

Suggestions from Harvard Health

The FDA is working on doing better monitoring and regulation of heavy metals in commercial baby foods. In the meantime, it’s nearly impossible to know which are completely safe and which aren’t. Babies don’t need solid foods until 6 months of age. At that time it’s perfectly fine to give them soft table foods instead of baby foods. You can also make your own baby food, using steamed or naturally soft foods and a blender. (Storage tip: you can pour a homemade puree into an ice cube tray and freeze it, and then just grab the cubes you need each time.)

Suggestions from Healthy Children

  • Give your child a wide variety of different foods (the more natural colors, the better).
  • Vary the grains. As mentioned above, it’s best to limit rice and rice products (check labels — rice is in a lot of foods marketed for babies, like “puffs”). Try barley, oats, and other grains. When cooking rice, it’s best to cook it in extra water and drain that water off, and to use white basmati and sushi rice, which have less arsenic.
  • Check your water. Old pipes can contain lead, which can leach into drinking water.
  • Avoid fruit juices. Not only can they increase the risk of cavities and obesity, but many commercial juices also contain heavy metals.
  • Make healthy fish choices. Fish contains nutrients that are very healthy for the developing brain, but some fish can contain unhealthy amounts of mercury. Stay clear of big, predatory, long-living fish like swordfish, shark, or albacore tuna; it’s better to choose fish like cod, light tuna, salmon, or pollock.

In the meantime…

Dec 9 2015

Arsenic in rice: another food safety worry?

I am often asked about the potential dangers of arsenic in rice.  As with all such questions, I start with the FDA.

The FDA says the amounts of arsenic it finds in foods do not pose a risk at current levels of consumption.  Brown rice, it finds, has levels of arsenic much higher than those in white rice.

Consumer Reports also tested rice samples.  It recommends against feeding rice cereals to children.  It calls on the FDA to set standards for arsenic levels in rice products.  These, according to the tests, vary widely.  Basmati rice from California, India and Pakistan and U.S.-grown sushi rice are “better choices.”  Just one serving of rice cereal or rice pasta could put a child over CR’s recommended weekly limit

On this basis, Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) introduced legislation— The R.I.C.E (Reducing food-based Inorganic Compounds Exposure) Act— to limit the amount of inorganic arsenic, the most toxic form of arsenic in rice foods.  The act would require the FDA to set limits on arsenic in rice.

Politico reported that the US Rice Federation questioned the science behind the Consumer Reports story:

Arsenic in our food supply is a challenging, yet unavoidable, situation which is why we support the FDA studying the issue carefully,” said Betsy Ward, president and CEO of the USA Rice Federation.  “But CR’s new consumption recommendations aren’t supported by any science that we’ve seen.”

How does arsenic get into rice?  Lots of ways, apparently: naturally occurring, but also from arsenic pesticides that persist in soil.  The flooding makes rice especially susceptible.

What to do while waiting for a resolution to safety questions?  Prepare rice in a coffee percolator says a recent study.  This flushes out a lot of the arsenic.

And everything in moderation, of course.

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Jan 13 2015

Another food safety scare: this time, crocodile bile?

Yesterday’s New York Times contained this remarkable news item from the Associated Press, reproduced here in its entirety (thanks to Maya Joseph for making sure I didn’t miss it):

Contaminated traditional beer has killed 56 people in Mozambique, health officials said Sunday. In addition, 49 people were admitted to hospitals in the Chitima and Songo districts in Tete Province, and 146 people have been examined for signs of the poisoning, a district health official, Alex Albertini, told Radio Mozambique. Those who drank the contaminated brew were attending a funeral in the region on Saturday, Mr. Albertini said. The authorities said they believed that the drink was poisoned with crocodile bile during the course of the funeral. The woman who brewed the beer is also among the dead.

A little checking around brought me to The Guardian, which explained:

When a crocodile is killed, its gallbladder must be immediately removed and buried in front of witnesses to stopped the bile being used as a poison, according to some African traditions.

But wait!

David Kroll writing in Forbes questions the accuracy of this report.  He did some homework and found an 1980s article from an African medical journal written by professor N.Z. Nyazema, a clinical pharmocologist at the University of Zimbabwe (whom Kroll is trying to track down).  Professor Nyazema says:

It is widely believed that the bile from the gall bladder of a crocodile is very poisonous. The bilenduru is used as poison which is added to beer or stiff porridge, sadza, of an unsuspecting victim. It is not easy to buy this poison neither is it easy for anyone to kill a crocodile solely for the purpose of obtaining the bile. But with a good fee one can obtain some of the poison from a special n’anga [a traditional healer of the Zimbabwean Shona tribe]…It is reported that the poisoning occurs at special occasions like beer drinking: The nduru is said to be introduced into the beer by dipping the finger or nail where a small amount is placed: This will suffice for the purpose.

Kroll sensibly asks: “In the current tragedy in Mozambique, I can’t imagine just how much bile would’ve had to be added to 210 liters of brew for so many deaths to occur.”

Good point.  He suspects digitalis from foxglove.

I’m crossing this one off my list of food ingredients to worry about.  Whew.

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Jan 18 2012

Food industry opposes EPA limits on dioxins

The food and chemical industries are lobbying hard against what is expected to be a tough report from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The report will set an upper limit for safe consumption of dioxins.

Most Americans consume dioxins at levels higher than this standard, mostly from food.

About 90% of dioxins come from foods, particularly high-fat animal foods.

Dioxins mainly enter the food chain as by-products of industrial processes.  To a lesser extent, they also come from natural processes such as volcanoes and forest fires.  They contaminate land and sea, are consumed in feed, move up the food chain, and end up in the fatty parts of meat, dairy products, and seafood.

Dioxins accumulate in fatty tissues.  They increase the risk of human cancer more than any other industrial chemical.

The EPA is expected to recommend an intake limit of 0.7 picograms of dioxin per kilogram body weight per day.  A picogram is one trillionth of a gram.  The World Health Organization and European Union limit is higher—from 1 to 4 picograms per kilogram per day.

The food and chemical industries argue that the proposed EPA limit is too low.

The EPA thinks less is better.  Dioxins are toxic and Americans typically consume amounts within the European range.   A single hot dog can contain more dioxin than the proposed limit for a 2-year-old.

Dioxin levels in the United States have been declining for the last 30 years due to reductions in man-made sources. But they break down slowly and persist for a long time in the environment.

How to avoid them?  The best way is to eat less high-fat meats, dairy foods, and seafood.

No wonder the food industry is alarmed.

A “Food Industry Dioxin Working Group” of trade associations such as the International Dairy Foods Association, the American Frozen Food Institute, and the National Chicken Council wrote to the White House:

Under EPA’s proposal…nearly every American – particularly young children – could easily exceed the daily RfD [reference dose] after consuming a single meal or heavy snack…The implications of this action are chilling.

Since the agency contends the primary route of human exposure to dioxin is through food, this could not only mislead and frighten consumers about the safety of their diets, but could have a significant negative economic impact on all US food producers.

These groups singled out the media for particular blame:

The media will inevitably report on this change and in all likelihood misinterpret the RFD as a ‘safe limit’. As a result, consumers may try to avoid any foods ‘identified’ as containing or likely to contain any dioxin.

Eat more fruits and vegetables anyone?

Congressman Ed Markey (Dem-MA) is urging the EPA to get busy and release its report:

The American public has been waiting for the completion of this dioxin study since 1985 and cannot afford any further delays…A baby born on the day the EPA completed its first draft health assessment would be 27 years old today. I’d like to see the final EPA analysis before it turns 28.

Let’s hope the EPA does not cave in to industry pressure and releases the report this month as promised.

Technical note:

“Dioxins” collectively refers to hundreds of chemical compounds that share certain structures and biological characteristics. They fall into three closely related groups: the chlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins (CDDs), chlorinated dibenzofurans (CDFs) and certain polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). The most studied is 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (TCDD).  PCBs are no longer produced in the U.S.

References:

Dec 20 2011

FDA tests apple juice for arsenic, says most are OK

Perhaps in response to Consumer Reports’ charges that levels of arsenic in children’s juices are so high that more restrictive standards would be healthier (see previous post), the FDA has done its own tests, updated its arsenic home page, and strengthened its Q and A on arsenic.

The Q and A includes these questions:

Is the arsenic in apple juice predominantly organic or inorganic?  Due to limited data available to answer this question, in October 2011, FDA collected and analyzed 94 samples of apple juices available for sale in the United States. Results from this data indicate that there are relatively low levels of arsenic in apple juice, with 95 percent of the apple juice samples tested being below 10 ppb total arsenic, but that the arsenic in these samples was predominantly the inorganic form [the bad kind].

Did the FDA test any of the samples tested by the Dr. Oz Show? On September 10-11, 2011, the FDA completed laboratory analysis of the same lot of Gerber apple juice that was tested by the Dr. Oz Show [Dr. Oz complained about the dangers of arsenic in juice], as well as several other lots produced in the same facility. The FDA’s testing detected very low levels of total arsenic in all samples tested. These new results were consistent with the FDA’s results obtained in the FDA’s routine monitoring program and are well below the results reported by the Dr. Oz Show. The FDA has concluded that the very low levels detected during our analysis are not a public health risk and the juice products are safe for consumption.

Food Quality News reports that safe or not, the FDA is still “considering setting a guidance level for inorganic arsenic in apple juice and apple juice concentrate that will further minimise public exposure to this contaminant.”

As well it should.  And preferably at the lower levels recommended by Consumer Reports.

 

 

Dec 8 2011

Consumer Reports’ arsenic-in-juice study: what to do?

I don’t often write about pesticides, plasticizers, heavy metals or other such potentially toxic substances in food because there usually isn’t enough science available to draw firm conclusions about how much of them is OK to consume.

At high concentrations they are demonstrably toxic.  But in food and water, they appear in amounts measured as parts per billion (ppb) or trillion, and it is difficult to know how harmful they may be at such levels.

The big question: is there a threshold for harm or are they unsafe at any level of intake?  The history of regulation of such substances is one of constant reduction in levels considered safe.

They derive in large part from industrial processes, and attempting to regulate them confronts large and powerful industries eager to argue that low levels are safe.

Now Consumer Reports has tested samples of juice and finds levels of arsenic  higher than allowed in drinking water:

  • 10% of the samples contained levels of arsenic that exceed EPA drinking-water standards of 10 ppb.
  • 25% contained levels of lead greater than the FDA’s 5 ppb standard for bottled water.
  • Most arsenic was inorganic, a form linked to cancer, cardiovascular disease, immune disorders, and type 2 diabetes.
  • 35% of children age 5 and younger drink juice in amounts higher than recommended by pediatricians.
  • No federal standards exist for amounts of lead and arsenic in juice.

This is a food systems issue.  Inorganic arsenic gets into food from soil contaminated with arsenic-containing herbicides and waste from animals and chickens fed arsenic-containing additives.

Consumer Reports says:

  • FDA should set a standard for total arsenic in juice at 3 ppb and 5 ppb for lead.
  • EPA should lower the 10 ppb drinking-water limit for arsenic.
  • Parents should limit juice servings to small children.

What does the FDA have to say?

The Food and Drug Administration has every confidence in the safety of apple juice…small amounts of arsenic can be found in certain food and beverage products—including fruit juices and juice concentrates….there is no evidence of any public health risk from drinking these juices…FDA has been testing them for years [see the FDA’s Q and A].

As if this were not enough to worry about, Food Quality News reports increasing concern about the amount of arsenic in rice, the dangers of such levels for pregnant women, and the need to establish better standards for safe levels of arsenic in foods.

Consumer Reports is especially concerned about a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences linking rice consumption to levels of arsenic in the urine of pregnant women.   It notes that children in the U.S. typically are fed rice cereal as their first solid food, making them especially vulnerable to the effects of arsenic.

Arsenic gets into rice in the same way that it gets into apples and grapes, but rice is especially efficient in taking up arsenic from soil.

I see all this as further evidence that agricultural practices are key determinants of public health and that we badly need:

  • More and better research on the effects of small amounts of arsenic, lead, pesticides, and other such toxins in food
  • Research on how to remove such toxins from soil
  • Federal safety standards for arsenic in foods and beverages; the Consumer Reports recommendations make sense
  • Regulations that restrict use of arsenic drugs in animal agriculture and of pesticides containing arsenic
  • Restrictions on the amount of juice and rice given to children

It’s great that Consumer Reports is doing this kind of research but federal agencies should be doing a lot more of it too.