In the wake of a Consumer Reports study that found levels of arsenic that exceeded the federal standards for bottled water (10 parts per billion, or ppb) in about 10% of sampled apple and grape juices, the FDA has said it will consider tightening its restrictions on arsenic levels in juice.
“We are seriously considering setting guidance or other level for inorganic arsenic in apple juice and are collecting all relevant information to evaluate and determine an appropriate level,” wrote Michael M. Landa, acting director of the FDA Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, in a Nov. 21 letter to consumer groups.
At present, federal standards permit as much as 23 ppb of arsenic in apple juice—a level that the Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, says is too high and, even at that level, not enforced well enough. They suggest that a 3 ppb level is more appropriate—particularly given the fact that, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children under 12 consume 28% of all juice and juice drinks, and long-term exposure to toxins may be more hazardous for them.
Part of the problem lies with the question of just what kind of arsenic is in the juice. There are two kinds of arsenic—organic and inorganic. Organic arsenic is generally not considered harmful, but the inorganic kind, which leaches into food products from pesticides, can increase cancer risk with enough long-term exposure. In the past, the FDA has said that most arsenic found in juices is inorganic, but a 2009 study conducted by the University of Arizona and published in the American Journal of Environmental Science found a number of samples of juice with predominantly inorganic arsenic.
Frank Greer, MD, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health and an expert in infant nutrition, understands parents’ concerns. “I think it’s very reasonable that the FDA reviews the 23 ppb standard,” he said. But, like many pediatricians, he is more concerned with the excess sugar and calories that kids get from drinking too much fruit juice. “Kids shouldn’t be drinking much juice in any case,” he said.
Dr. Greer is also concerned that the arsenic scare could affect the apple juice industry in the same way that similar headlines depressed the cranberry industry in the 1950s and 1960s. In November 1959, days before Thanksgiving, the Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare announced that domestic cranberry products were “contaminated” with a weed-killer called aminotriazole. In huge doses—the equivalent of eating 15,000 pounds of cranberries daily for years—the chemical could cause cancer. “That set the industry back 10 years,” Dr. Greer said. “I would hate to start a scare that damages a product unnecessarily when no harm has been shown to date.”