Toxic Arsenic in Rice Cereal: Retailers Have a Role

A new report finds arsenic in infant rice cereal at levels six times as high as cereals made from other grains or mixtures. Read below for details from Healthy Babies Bright Futures on the report and its implications.  

The Getting Ready for Baby campaign supports calls for drastically reducing levels of arsenic in infant cereal, and in addition to the recommendations in the report, urges retailers, especially those like Babies"R"Us and buybuy BABY that focus on the needs of infants and young children, to do the following:

  1. Educate parents about the benefits of non-rice cereals and the findings of this report. Healthy Babies Bright Futures offers a fact sheet with actions parents can take to avoid arsenic in their children's diets here
  2.  Rearrange your store shelves to prominently feature low-arsenic baby foods. Use the report to identify the safest options and make those easiest to find.
  3. Work with your suppliers to offer only low-arsenic infant cereals. The tests show that some rice cereals can be quite low in arsenic, but companies need procedures in place to ensure they use rice that can meet those low levels.

"The good news for parents is that safer choices for feeding babies are right there on store shelves. Retailers should partner with parents to help protect babies' brains and bodies from toxic arsenic," said Bobbi Wilding, director of the Getting Ready for Baby campaign.

From Healthy Babies Bright Futures:

December 7, 2017—In the first-ever testing of new infant cereals, Healthy Babies Bright Futures (HBBF) and its partner organizations today report that toxic arsenic levels found in infant rice cereals are six times higher than in other infant cereals. Scientists, health professionals and advocates call for immediate action by FDA and cereal manufacturers to help protect children from unnecessary arsenic exposures. Parents are urged to choose safer alternatives to infant rice cereals.

The study tested 105 cereals covering a wide range of cereal types and brands, including Gerber, Earth’s Best, and Beech-Nut. Over the last four years, cereal manufacturers have decreased arsenic levels in their infant rice cereals on average from 103 parts per billion (ppb) to 85 ppb. However, this decrease is NOT enough to protect infants.

Arsenic is known to cause cancer in humans, but also poses risks to the developing brain. It has been linked to permanent IQ loss for children exposed in utero or during the first years of life. Rice absorbs and concentrates 10 times more arsenic from the environment than other cereal grains. Infant rice cereal is the top dietary source of arsenic for babies under the age of one. HBBF tested all cereals in the study for inorganic arsenic, the contaminant’s most toxic form. 

“A growing body of research points to the potential for arsenic to cause adverse health effects at low levels. The public health implications of arsenic contamination in food and water, particularly foods like infant rice cereals and other commonly consumed rice products early in life, raise serious concerns,” said Dr. Margaret Karagas, Chair of the Department of Epidemiology, Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth.  

The harm to health is considerable: Arsenic in infant rice cereal and other rice-based foods accounts for an estimated loss of up to 9.2 million IQ points among U.S. children ages 0-6, according to a new analysis by Abt Associates commissioned by HBBF. This damage costs the country an estimated $12-18 billion annually in lost wages. 

“Babies eat infant cereal a time in life when the brain is intensely sensitive to harm, making arsenic in infant rice cereal uniquely risky. But cereal companies can fix this problem. We are calling on manufacturers to reduce arsenic levels in their rice cereals to the same low levels we found in other cereals,” says Jane Houlihan, study author and HBBF’s National Director of Science and Health.

With 84 percent less arsenic in non-rice and multi-grain cereals than in infant rice cereal, choosing alternative non-rice cereals is an effective and immediate action that parents can take to lower their baby’s arsenic exposures. The study found signficantly lower arsenic levels in infant oatmeal, mixed grain, quinoa, barley, buckwheat, and wheat cereals, making each a safer alternative to rice cereal.

“Arsenic is a carcinogen and a known cause of infant brain damage. Exposures in early life are especially dangerous,” explains Dr. Philip J. Landrigan from Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. “I urge parents to avoid feeding rice cereal to your babies. There are many other good, nutritious and affordable cereal products on the market. I encourage you to use these alternatives until this problem is fixed.” 

Arsenic is strictly regulated in drinking water, but is legal in any amount in infant rice cereal. In 2016, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) proposed an action level targeting high arsenic levels in infant rice cereal. However, to date, the FDA has not taken further action on finalizing this level.

“As a pediatrician, I find it intolerable that in 2017 we still have arsenic in widely used brands of infant rice cereal. The Food and Drug Administration and the cereal manufacturers need to correct this problem immediately— with no further delay,” says Dr. Landrigan.

HBBF’s partners on this research project include Alaska Community Action on Toxics, Campaign for Healthier Solutions, Center for Environmental Health, Clean & Healthy New York, Coming Clean, Conservation Minnesota, Getting Ready for Baby, Learning Disabilities Association of America and Toxic-Free Future.

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