(Reuters) - Consumer Reports is urging U.S. limits for arsenic in rice after tests of more than 60 popular products - from Kellogg's Rice Krispies to Gerber infant cereal - showed most contained some level of inorganic arsenic, a known human carcinogen.
The watchdog group said some varieties of brown rice - including brands sold by Whole Foods Markets Inc and Wal-Mart Stores Inc - contained particularly significant levels of inorganic arsenic.
It recommended ways for children and adults to limit their intake of rice products each week and said U.S. regulators should ban arsenic-containing drugs and pesticides used in crop and animal production.
"The goal of our report is to inform — not alarm — consumers about the importance of reducing arsenic exposure," said Urvashi Rangan, director of safety and sustainability at Consumer Reports. "The silver lining in all of this is that it is possible to get a better handle on this."
In the absence of government regulation, steps that consumers can take include limiting infant rice cereal to one serving per day for babies and excluding rice milk from the daily diets of children under the age of 5, the report said. Adults should eat no more than two servings of rice per week.
As replacements, it suggested other healthy whole grains such as wheat, corn and oats, which have lower arsenic levels.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration said on Wednesday that it plans to collect data on 1,200 food samples by the end of the year and make its own recommendation on arsenic intake.
The agency said its preliminary data on arsenic in rice products is consistent with the Consumer Reports investigation. It found average levels of inorganic arsenic for various rice products of 3.5 to 6.7 micrograms per serving in about 200 samples. Consumer Reports notes that the most stringent U.S. state restriction on inorganic arsenic in drinking water sets a permissible limit of 5 micrograms in a single liter.
"Our advice right now is that consumers should continue to eat a balanced diet that includes a wide variety of grains - not only for good nutrition, but also to minimize any potential consequences from consuming any one particular food," FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg said in a statement.
Consumers are likely to cut back on rice altogether rather than try to follow specific guidelines, said Bob Goldin, director of the food supplier practice at consulting firm Technomic Inc.
"I don't think consumers will dig that deep. I think they'll just say 'Oops, there's something bad in rice,'" Goldin said.
Earlier this year, Consumer Reports called for limits on arsenic in apple and grape juices after similar testing found "worrisome" levels in those childhood staples.
Food manufacturers and groups representing the $34 billion rice industry said singling out rice products was alarmist.
"Recent media stories based on studies about high levels of arsenic in rice are misleading the public about this issue, given that arsenic is everywhere and present in air, soil, water, and foods, including fruits and vegetables," the USA Rice Federation said on its website.
Nestle Nutrition said in a statement that its Gerber baby products, including its rice cereals, are safe to consume. It added that it began exclusive use of California rice for all of its rice-containing dry infant cereal earlier this year. California has the lowest arsenic levels for rice grown in the United States, the company said.
A spokeswoman for General Mills Inc, whose Rice Chex cereal was included in the Consumer Reports study, said the company was confident there should be no concern for consumers eating their product.
Two Rice Krispies products tested by Consumer Reports had arsenic levels below the publication's recommended limits, but Kellogg Co will work with the FDA, scientists and others in the industry to review the data, said spokeswoman Kris Charles.
Officials at other food manufacturers and retailers, including PepsiCo Inc's Quaker Oats were not immediately available for comment.
LINKS TO DISEASE
Inorganic arsenic is deadly at high doses. It has been linked to a variety of cancers, including skin, lung and bladder, as well as heart disease and other illnesses.
Organic arsenic is believed to be far less harmful, but two organic forms measured - called DMA and MMA - are classified as possible carcinogens, Consumer Reports said.
Food is a major source of arsenic in the American diet, as the chemical is still used in feed for poultry and occasionally hogs to prevent disease. Waste from those animals can contaminate fields when it is used as fertilizer.
As a result, arsenic can be found in fruits, vegetables, rice and seafood - all of which are considered healthy. The U.S. government has a federal limit for arsenic in drinking water at 10 parts per billion (ppb).
"There is no such thing as a safe level of arsenic," said Michael Harbut, a researcher and physician who leads the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute's Environmental Cancer Program at Wayne State University in Detroit and treats people with arsenic poisoning.
"Consumers should demand that the FDA do a better job of patrolling inorganic arsenic in the food supply," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit.
She added that the public would be well served with limits that consider exposure to inorganic arsenic in water as well as a variety of foods.
White rice grown in Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri and Texas, which account for 34 percent of U.S. produced rice, generally had higher levels of total arsenic and inorganic arsenic than rice samples from elsewhere, including India and Thailand, Consumer Reports said.
The group's rice tests included multiple samples of more than 60 products - including white and brown rice, infant rice cereals, rice crackers, rice pasta and rice drinks. It found measurable amounts of total arsenic - both inorganic and organic forms - in samples of almost every product tested.
The tests also showed that brown rice had higher levels of arsenic. That is because arsenic is concentrated in its healthy outer layers, which are removed to make white rice.
Products that raise particular concern for children - who are still developing and have significantly lower body weights than adults - include infant rice cereal, ready-to-eat cold breakfast cereals and rice milk, Consumer Reports said.
(Additional reporting by Caroline Humer and Jessica Wohl; Editing by Michele Gershberg, Jacqueline Wong, Andrew Hay, Andre Grenon and Bob Burgdorfer)