The Food and Drug Administration has reiterated its finding that apple juice sold across the U.S. is safe to drink, with naturally occurring arsenic levels well below the agency’s “level of concern,” but says it may set new guidelines on an appropriate level for inorganic arsenic.

“FDA monitoring has found that total arsenic levels in apple juice are typically low,” according to Michael Landa, acting director of the FDA”s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.

Landa reached that conclusion in a lengthy letter last week to two consumer groups, Food and Water Watch and the Empire State Consumer Project, which are campaigning for standards for arsenic and other heavy metals in apple products.

The letter also states that in addition to its continued monitoring of imported apple juice, the agency will collect and analyze juice samples from U.S. retailers to determine “the prevalence of arsenic in juice and to better understand the species of arsenic found in juice.” 

The issue got attention earlier this year when The Dr. Oz Show publicized results of private tests showing arsenic levels higher than the FDA level of concern (23 parts per billion) in a number popular brands of apple juice.  FDA officials publicly rebutted those claims, but declined to appear on the TV show.

Arsenic and apple juice have become a recurring theme in food safety politics. Consumer groups point out that most U.S. apple juice is imported from China and other countries, and they fear some of it may be tainted with arsenic and other heavy metals.

In his letter, Landa said the agency has increased its monitoring of imported juices. In one recent sampling, all 74  samples collected had originated in China.  But only one of those samples tested slightly above 23 ppb of total arsenic.  Most of the samples – 95 percent – tested below 10 ppb total arsenic, Landa reported.

Tests of Motts apple juice, commissioned by the Empire State Consumer Project, had shown arsenic levels as high as 55 ppb.  But those tests “seemed inconsistent with the vast majority of the test results we have seen in the last two decades,” Landa said.

So the agency collected and tested additional samples of Chinese apple juice from the Mott’s plant in New York, and those tests showed arsenic levels between 4 ppb and 8 ppb – a fraction of what the consumer group had found.

Similarly, the FDA tested juice from the same Nestle/Gerber lot that the TV program had shown to contain 36 ppb total arsenic, but the FDA tests showed arsenic levels ranging from 2 to 6 ppb.

The FDA previously has stressed the importance of distinguishing between organic and inorganic arsenic.  Organic arsenic is considered part of the natural environment, present in small amounts in drinking water and foods and essentially harmless, while inorganic arsenic is the poison made famous by mystery writer Agatha Christie.

In the letter to Food & Water Watch and the Empire State Consumer Project, Landa said the FDA has ordered its field force to collect and analyze up to 90 baby food and apple juice samples by the end of the year. It also will focus on arsenic measurement in other types of juices.

The letter also said “in the event we find a contaminant in a food that poses a health hazard, such that the food is deemed to be adulterated, we can and intend to take appropriate enforcement action.”

Responding to the consumer groups’ request that FDA set tolerance levels for heavy metals, including arsenic, in apple products, Landa said such an action requires “formal rulemaking and is a lengthy process,” and that tolerance levels, once established, are difficult to change.

“For those reasons, FDA almost never uses tolerances for chemical contaminants, and instead considers other limits such as levels of concern or guidance or other levels,” Landa wrote. But he said agency officials are “seriously considering setting guidance or other level for inorganic apple juice and are collecting all relevant information to evaluate and determine an appropriate level.”