Researchers say arsenic in the food supply isn't an organic problem, but a food-system-wide challenge.
"Arsenic in Organic Baby Formula!" "Organic Food Source of Arsenic!" Headlines like these were not uncommon last week after a college study found high levels of the dangerous element in some organic cereal bars and baby formulas containing organic ingredients. The culprit? Brown rice syrup, a common replacement for high-fructose corn syrup. While some news reports of arsenic in organic food may have left you questioning the integrity of organic, many failed to note that arsenic is a food-system-wide problem. (Plus, organic food protects families from exposure to dozens of other toxic compounds that are allowed in conventional foods.)
"This is not exclusively an organic food problem," explains study author Brian Jackson, PhD, a researcher in environmental analytical chemistry at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. He says the concern lies with anyone eating a diet high in rice ingredients, whether conventional or organic. The organics industry just happens to use brown rice syrup as a sweetener in many processed foods, he says.
Arsenic occurs naturally in soil and can turn up in groundwater supplies, and until the late 1950s, it was used extensively as a pesticide in chemical orchard operations, where the pollution sometimes still lingers decades later. It's recently been detected in fruit juices (taken up from the orchard soil, in many cases). Chronic exposure is linked to cancer and developmental problems.
Rice is a prime culprit for contamination because under waterlogged rice patty soil conditions, arsenic is very similar to silica—something rice needs to take up from the soil in order to grow. "The rice does not discriminate between the source of arsenic," Jackson notes. "If there is arsenic in the soil, whether from pesticides or naturally, or both, then it can be taken up by rice."
Both Jackson and Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food & Water Watch, a consumer safety organization, agree that the real issue isn't organics, but rather the lack of a regulatory limit for the amount of arsenic allowed in food. "It's hard to say eat this, not that when you're talking about arsenic. We're still trying to figure out the sources," Lovera says. "We don't think consumers are going to solve this on their own."
Instead, she says the Food and Drug Administration needs to figure out standards and enforce a protective limit, so food processors can start testing products for compliance. Jackson adds that the message isn't to completely avoid rice. He suggests that parents avoid toddler or infant formula made with organic brown rice syrup, and that people on diets that are very high in rice try to diversify their food groups.
Cutting back on processed foods may also limit arsenic exposure.
5. It is illegal for organic farmers to use human sewage sludge as a fertilizer for crops, something conventional farmers may do. This sludge is often laced with shampoo chemicals and heavy metals, and sometimes, even waste from funeral homes.
6. Organic chicken production bans the use of arsenic in chicken feed, something that is perfectly legal in conventional systems (arsenic is used because it makes chickens grow faster). This practice can lead to arsenic-laced chicken waste, which is sometimes used to fertilize food crop fields.