Illegal Levels of Arsenic Found in Baby Rice

Peter Russell

May 05, 2017

Nearly three-quarters of rice-based foods specifically marketed for infants and young children contain higher levels of arsenic than are permitted under a new EU law, a study has found.


A research team led by Queen's University Belfast says these baby food products have not become safer since the law was introduced last year.


An industry spokesperson says the research was carried out shortly after the regulations came into effect when shops were still permitted to sell stock manufactured before the law changed.


Weaning Foods

Rice cakes and other rice-based products are a popular choice for parents. They are widely used during weaning, and to feed young children. They provide good nutrition and are unlikely to cause allergic reactions.


Arsenic occurs naturally in a wide range of foods at low levels due to the presence of arsenic in air, soil and water. However, rice usually contains 10-times more inorganic arsenic than other foods.


Long-term overconsumption can lead to a range of health problems, including poor development, heart disease, diabetes and damage to the nervous system.


Babies and young children are more susceptible to the damaging effects of arsenic because they are at a sensitive stage of development and eat more food as a proportion of their body weight than adults.


Product Testing

The researchers tested 13 types of baby rice, 29 types of rice crackers and rice cakes and 31 types of rice cereal from 17 different Belfast stores. The samples were bought in February 2016 – a month after the EU legislation came into force.


They found that 74% of these rice-based products that were specifically marketed for infants and young children contained more than the maximum 0.1 milligrams of arsenic per kilogram of rice stipulated by the law.


Almost 80% of the rice crackers, 61% of the baby rice and 32% of the rice cereals exceeded the maximum limit, the researchers report.


The study, published in the PLoS ONE  journal, also analysed 79 urine samples taken from Belfast infants who were breast-fed or formula-fed before and after weaning. Around 9 out of 10 of the infants were fed rice-based products during weaning.


A higher concentration of arsenic was found in formula-fed infants, particularly among those who were fed non-dairy formulas such as those fortified with rice.


Weaning with rice products further increased the infants' exposure to arsenic, the results show.


The study concludes that more should be done to lower arsenic levels in rice products manufactured for young children.


Regulations 'Should Be Enforced'

Commenting on the findings in an emailed statement, Professor Mary Fewtrell, nutrition lead at the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, says: "As a precaution, rice drinks for infants and young children should be avoided and they should have a balanced diet with [a] variety of different grains as a source of carbohydrate.


"Inorganic arsenic intake is likely to affect long-term health, and as this study shows, high concentrations are found in some rice-based foods and drinks widely used for infants and young children.


"For all of the rice products, strict regulation should be enforced regarding arsenic content. The inorganic arsenic content should be declared and the potential risks should be considered when using these products."


In a statement, a spokesperson for the Food Standards Agency says: "Some arsenic is naturally occurring and unavoidable in food. However, there have been strict maximum limits for inorganic arsenic in rice for use in foods for infants and young children since January 2016.


"It is the responsibility of food manufacturers to ensure that products comply with this legislation."


Safety 'Is a Priority'

The British Specialist Nutrition Association (BSNA), which represents manufacturers of infant formula milk and weaning foods, says product safety is a top priority for its members. It issued a statement saying: "Industry has been working proactively to reduce the levels of arsenic in food and it has been a focus of ongoing, long-term research. BSNA works across industry and with regulators in the UK and Europe to further increase our shared understanding of arsenic in foods.


"The research was undertaken a month after the regulations came into force when shops would still be permitted to sell rice products manufactured before 1 January 2016.


"We are confident, should the research be repeated now, that rice products designed for infants and young children produced by our members would meet the stringent EU food safety regulations."



Levels of infants' urinary arsenic metabolites related to formula feeding and weaning with rice products exceeding the EU inorganic arsenic standard, Signes-Pastor A et al, Plos One

Queen's University Belfast

Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health

Food Standards Agency (FSA)

British Specialist Nutrition Association (BSNA)