A Food Standards Agency spokeswoman said: “It is the responsibility of food manufacturers to ensure that products comply with [EU] legislation [on inorganic arsenic]. Local authorities enforce this legislation in the UK and report any non-compliant results to the FSA in England, Wales and Northern Ireland and to Food Standards Scotland in Scotland.
“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.”
Heart disease, diabetes and nervous system damage
The report, from Queen’s University Belfast, found that the amount of arsenic in baby rice food had increased since the new legislation was introduced. Researchers warned that this chronic exposure to inorganic arsenic could cause developmental problems in babies, as well as heart disease, diabetes and nervous system damage.
Food manufacturers could remove up to 85% of arsenic in their products by percolating fresh hot water through them, the researchers added.
Lead author of the study Professor Andrew Meharg said: “Simple measures can be taken to dramatically reduce the arsenic in these products, so there is no excuse for manufacturers to be selling baby food products with such harmful levels of this carcinogenic substance.
“Manufacturers should be held accountable for selling products that are not meeting the required EU standard. Companies should publish the levels of arsenic in their products to prevent those with illegal amounts from being sold.”
‘Manufacturers should be held accountable’
The university researchers analysed the amount of arsenic in urine from babies to find the results. The research compared the levels of arsenic before and after the weaning process, when rice cakes and rice cereals were common in babies’ diets. Babies were five times more exposed to arsenic after the weaning process, the researchers said.
“This research has shown direct evidence that babies are exposed to illegal levels of arsenic despite the EU regulation to specifically address this health challenge,” Meharg said.
Meanwhile, the British Specialist Nutrition Association (BSNA) claimed retailers were still selling products manufactured before the new legislation was introduced when the research was carried out. It was confident rice products would meet legislation if the research was repeated now.
The Food and Drink Federation (FDF) said manufacturers were always analysing their products to prevent safety hazards.
An FDF spokesman said: “The safety of products is the top priority for food and drink producers, who constantly assess their raw materials and also provide current data to help inform regulatory decision-making. Both consumers and food companies rely on robust, proportionate legislation and guidance from regulatory bodies.”
What they say about arsenic in baby rice food
- “Rice, an important contributor to a balanced and healthy diet, is known to concentrate more inorganic arsenic compared to other cereals. This therefore remains the focus for ongoing, long-term research globally.”
Food and Drink Federation
- “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.”
Food Standards Agency
- “Babies are particularly vulnerable to the damaging effects of arsenic that can prevent the healthy development of a baby's growth, IQ and immune system to name but a few.”
Andrew Meharg, Queen’s University Belfast
- “The safety of products is the top priority for BSNA members. Manufacturers carefully select and rigorously check all their raw materials to ensure they are safe and strictly compliant with current food safety regulations.”
British Specialist Nutrition Association (BSNA)