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GAO tells Rep. DeLauro that agencies need to pick up the pace

FDA, USDA 'generally agree' they need to improve efforts to protect consumers from arsenic in rice

At the request of Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro, D-CT, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) has returned to the problem of managing the risk of arsenic in rice. The GAO is an agency in the legislative branch of the federal government that provides auditing, evaluation and investigative services for Congress

Arsenic, a natural element in the earth’s crust, can be ingested by rice consumption, causing adverse human health effects, including cardiovascular disease. Recent scientific reviews including one by the National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academy of Sciences in 2013, have highlighted the problem.

DeLauro, the ranking member on the House Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies, asked the GAO to take another look at the problem.

It examined the following.

  • What NRC and recent key scientific reviews have reported about the effects of ingestion of arsenic on human health;
  • The extent to which FDA and USDA have managed the risk to human health from arsenic in rice; and
  • The extent to which FDA has coordinated with USDA and other federal agencies on actions to manage the risk.

The GAO analyzed a 2013 NRC report on inorganic arsenic, 14 reviews of scientific studies on the human health effects of ingesting arsenic published from January 2015 to June 2017, and agency documents. GAO staff also interviewed FDA and USDA officials and compared good practices with actions FDA and USDA took to manage risks. It also looked at FDA’s coordination of efforts.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-CT

In his letter to DeLauro, Steve D. Morris, GAO’s director of natural resources and environment, said rice is more susceptible to arsenic contamination than other crops because flood irrigation is used to grow it.

“In 2009, the European Food Safety Authority noted that exposure of infants to arsenic in rice products is a concern because such products are often used in foods for infants and because infants and young children have a higher food intake relative to their body weight than adults,” Morris wrote.

The GAO gave DeLauro five recommendations, four directed at FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb and one for Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue. Those recommendations are:

  • The Commissioner of FDA should develop a timeline for updating the risk assessment on arsenic in rice.
  • The Commissioner of FDA should develop a timeline for finalizing the draft guidance on arsenic in infant rice cereal.
  • The Commissioner of FDA should develop a mechanism for working with relevant agencies to identify their roles and responsibilities for coordinating risk assessments of contaminants in food, including arsenic in rice.
  • The Commissioner of FDA should work with USDA to develop a mechanism to coordinate the development of methods to detect contaminants in food, including arsenic in rice.
  • The Secretary of Agriculture should work with FDA to develop a mechanism to coordinate the development of methods to detect contaminants in food, including arsenic in rice.

FDA regulates the safety of rice and rice-based foods in the U.S. while USDA’s role is more limited and nonregulatory.

“FDA has a compliance program designed to monitor over 1,400 products annually, including foods that are most likely to contribute to the dietary intake of toxic elements, among other contaminants,” the GAO report says.

Before publishing its report, GAO shared the recommendations with both FDA and USDA. Both agencies “generally agreed” with the GAO findings.

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