by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Toxins

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.

Jun 13 2011

The FDA’s excellent move on arsenic drugs in chickens

For years, as Tom Philpott recounts on his new food and agriculture blog for Mother Jones, public health advocates have fretted about the use of arsenic-containing drugs to kill intestinal parasites and promote growth in chickens.

One such drug is roxarsone, made by Pfizer. Its arsenic is in the organic (carbon-containing) form, which is less toxic than the inorganic form.

But, as the New York Times explained, evidence has been accumulating that the organic form can change into the more toxic, inorganic form, a known carcinogen.

As reported in Food Safety News,  the Center for Food Safety, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, and several other consumer and agriculture groups petitioned FDA to ban the drug three years ago.

Last week, the FDA announced that the agency had done its own feeding tests.  Chickens fed organic roxarsone had higher levels of inorganic arsenic in their tissues.  The FDA got Pfizer to “voluntarily” withdraw the drug from the market.

The surprise here is not the FDA’s delay in dealing with this drug.  The big surprise is that the FDA did its own testing.  As the Times put it:

The F.D.A. once routinely conducted its own studies of animal and human drugs, but limited budgets led the agency to eliminate much of its scientific and laboratory capacity over the years. The roxarsone study is a triumph for agency scientists but one unlikely to be repeated very often. The agency asked for $183 million in additional funds for food safety efforts next year, but House Republicans have instead proposed cutting $87 million.

Drug companies cannot be expected to do their own testing if there is any chance that the tests will show something not in their best interest.  If independent federal agencies don’t do these kinds of studies, who will?

I can remember when the FDA housed a group of researchers doing outstanding work on food allergies in the 1990s.  The FDA closed down that lab when it was given additional responsibilities by Congress with no additional funding.

The FDA is a public health agency.  Its job is to protect the public against unsafe food contaminated with bacteria or antibiotics such as roxarsone.  The agency gets high marks for taking this on.  And Congress needs to support the FDA’s research mission.

 

Jan 28 2008

NY Times readers weigh in on methylmercury in fish

Readers of the New York Times have lots to say about last week’s methylmercury-in-sushi article. One point is that Blue Fin tuna, the largest and therefore the most contaminated kind, are hugely overfished and disappearing from the oceans.  This is another reason not to eat this fish (vote with your fork) but also a reason to call for a moratorium on catching this fish (vote with your vote).

Oct 31 2007

Toxins in the environment: USA Today series

I’m always surprised when people criticize the shallowness of USA Today when its reporters consistently write in-depth investigative reports that other newspapers ignore. This week, the paper is doing a series of reports on environmental toxins–lead, methylmercury, and endocrine disruptors. The one on the relationship of coal burning power plants to methylmercury in fish is particularly relevant to food issues (and is the subject of a chapter in What to Eat).