The Salt
3:37 pm
Fri July 12, 2013

How Much Arsenic Is Safe In Apple Juice? FDA Proposes New Rule

Originally published on Fri July 12, 2013 6:19 pm

Here's some news for parents of the sippy-cup crowd: The Food and Drug Administration has proposed a 10 parts-per-billion threshold for levels of inorganic arsenic in apple juice. This is the same level set by the EPA for arsenic in drinking water. Right now, there is no FDA standard for apple juice.

Now, we've told you about the brouhaha over trace levels of arsenic commonly found in apple juice before.

Back in 2011, after Dr. Mehmet Oz released the results of an investigation that found that some of the nation's best-known brands contained arsenic, he was criticized for needlessly worrying parents.

As we reported back then, Dr. Richard Besser, former acting head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, took on Dr. Oz in a heated exchange on Good Morning America, calling the report "extremely irresponsible," since the study only looked at total levels of arsenic. In other words, the study did not distinguish between organic arsenic, which occurs in nature and passes quickly through the body, and inorganic arsenic, the carcinogenic form.

Since arsenic is present naturally in the environment, lots of foods, from rice to chicken, include trace levels. And past use of arsenic-containing pesticides has also led to concentrations of arsenic in soils. Additionally, much of the apple juice sold in the U.S. is made with apples from China.

But Oz was not alone in raising alarm bells. A few months after the controversy surrounding Oz's study, Consumer Reports published the results of its own investigation that found roughly 10 percent of juice samples in its testing had total levels of arsenic that exceeded federal drinking-water standards — and most of that arsenic was the toxic kind.

In proposing the new arsenic threshold, FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg said in a release, "We have been studying this issue comprehensively, and based on the agency's data and analytical work, the FDA is confident in the overall safety of apple juice for children and adults."

The FDA has been monitoring levels of arsenic in apple juice for 20 years. In its latest analysis, released last year, of 94 samples of apple juice, the agency found that 100 percent of the samples fell below 10 ppb for inorganic arsenic.

Concerns have also been raised about the levels of arsenic found in rice. An FDA spokesperson told us by email that the administration is following the same process it used with apple juice to assess arsenic levels in rice. "Once we complete our analysis, we will begin our risk assessment" and determine the next steps.

Consumer Reports was quick to weigh in on the FDA's announcement.

"We are pleased to see the Food and Drug Administration taking this action," says Urvashi Rangan, director of consumer safety and sustainability at Consumer Reports. "Proposing a 10 ppb guidance for apple juice — the same level set for water — is a reasonable first step in protecting consumers from unnecessary exposure to arsenic."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

Here's some news for parents of the sippy-cup crowd. The Food and Drug Administration is proposing a new standard for levels of arsenic in apple juice. Concerns have been raised about the amounts of the toxin that are showing up in juices. So should we be worried about this? We turn to NPR's Allison Aubrey to talk about it more. Hey there, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Hey, Audie.

CORNISH: So what's the story here? What has been the concern?

AUBREY: Well, it's reports from consumer and advocacy groups that really brought this issue to national attention. Back in 2011, Dr. Oz presented results from an investigation on his TV show that found some of the nation's best-known brands of apple juice contained arsenic, and there was a suggestion that this could be harmful. He was criticized for alarming parents.

But independently, Consumer Reports also published a report that found about 10 percent of juice samples they tested had total levels of arsenic that exceeded federal drinking water standards. And I should say here that there's arsenic in drinking water too. It occurs naturally. So the FDA decided to take a good look at the levels in apple juice.

CORNISH: So what did the FDA find?

AUBREY: Well, they looked at some 94 samples of apple juice. And they broke down the test results to distinguish between total arsenic and inorganic arsenic, and that's the carcinogenic form. And what they found is that all of their samples fell below this 10 parts per billion threshold for levels of inorganic arsenic. And so now, this is what they're proposing as the new threshold for apple juice, which is basically the same standard that already exists for arsenic in drinking water.

CORNISH: And I'm feeling a little deja vu here. I mean, haven't there been concerns about arsenic in other foods as well?

AUBREY: Yeah. Well, last year, there was a report from Consumer Reports on levels of arsenic found in rice. And, you know, it's just really sort of the same issue. The amounts are small. But I think people want clarity. They want to know, you know, is there a safe level? They hear the word arsenic and they think, you know, cancerous or toxic. And, you know, so I communicated with an FDA spokesperson today by email, and basically, what I learned is that the FDA is going to follow the same process they took with apple juice to assess arsenic levels in rice.

Once they complete their analysis, they'll begin to determine the next step and perhaps set a similar standard for arsenic in rice. So it's really likely to be an issue that we hear about again. I would say, overall, Audie, for apple juice, I think the message is stand down. I mean, I can tell you as a mom of three children, from teen to toddler, I used to worry about all of these things. But if you look at the science here, if arsenic is limited down to 10 parts per billion, I think that this is something that we can mark off our worry list.

CORNISH: Allison, thanks so much.

AUBREY: All right. Thank you.

CORNISH: That's NPR's food and health correspondent Allison Aubrey. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.