Rice leading the way to zero

Betsy Ward
By Betsy Ward
President and CEO
USA Rice

Last year, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration launched an initiative called “Closer to Zero” to identify actions the agency can take to reduce exposure to toxic elements from foods eaten by babies and children. You know where this is going: to infant rice cereal and to arsenic in rice. But it might surprise you to learn that we welcomed the program because the agency is promising a rigorous, science-based approach in partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Consider the alternative.  

Last fall, egged on by Consumer Reports that is in the habit of cherry-picking data and then using hucksters like Dr. Oz to whip up his base of fact-starved viewers, staff at the House Oversight Committee issued a report so light on rigor on the subject, that calling it a “report” is an insult to last-minute middle school book reports everywhere.

According to the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, it has launched an initiative called “Closer to Zero” to identify actions the agency will take to reduce exposure to arsenic, lead, cadmium and mercury from foods eaten by babies and young children — to as low as possible. U.S. FOOD & DRUG ADMINISTRATION

Last month I testified at a USDA public meeting on Closer to Zero and told them I’m proud that, according to FDA data, the overwhelming majority of U.S.-grown rice, and certainly all rice used in infant cereals, meets a 100 parts per billion (ppb) threshold for inorganic arsenic in rice destined for baby food that FDA has set. And that according to the United Nations and the World Health Organization, U.S.-grown rice has the lowest levels of inorganic arsenic in the world.

I reminded them that the U.S. rice industry has spent millions of dollars on research to understand the issue and identify mitigation strategies, and that we have been transparent throughout, sharing our research with the FDA.  

Multi-state research proposal

And we are building on that legacy. The USA Rice Food Safety Management Practices Task Force has partnered with researchers and Extension specialists on a comprehensive multi-state research proposal called “Closing in on Zero: A Sustainable Model to Reduce Heavy Metal Concentrations and Greenhouse Gas Emissions in Rice Production” that we have submitted to USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

The proposal seeks to identify current and potential alternative rice production practices, study the economic viability and potential obstacles to those practices, develop producer decision tools, create an educational and training platform to disseminate new technologies to the rice industry and the public and provide innovative educational opportunities for the next generation of rice producers and scientists, all in the name of moving the U.S. rice industry “closer to zero.”

End-product testing is skewed

But as I testified, this is not a rice issue. It is a food issue. The most prevalent source of arsenic in the American diet is fruits, vegetables and juices. 

But since rice is the only product for which there is an action level, rice is disproportionately impacted by the regulatory framework. Essentially, any level of inorganic arsenic in baby food is possible because only products with rice are regulated.

I testified that unless and until other ingredients used in baby food have action levels established for any contaminants they may contain, USA Rice objects to the sole reliance on end-product testing of baby food simply because it contains rice.

I also shared the undeniable health benefits of rice in baby food that come from studies at the Centers for Disease Control. There’s a reason we’ve all been fed rice cereal.

Once again, I am proud of our record as an industry — accepting our obligations and responsibilities and committing precious resources to better understand and mitigate problems.

I know you are dedicated to providing a healthy and nutritious staple food for children and adults here and around the world, and I am just as dedicated to making sure you can. 

Thank you for your support and have a safe and productive growing season.

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