1. Have metal levels in rice always been an industry/consumer concern, or is this a relatively new concern stemming from the Monmouth study?
Manufacturers following GMP have known for years that rice and hundreds of other plant-based ingredients which soak up elements from the soil need to be tested at the source, especially if they want to sell their food/beverage/supplement products in the US’s largest state. Due to California’s Prop 65 and technology advances enabling measuring down to the smallest levels (going from parts per million to parts per billion) there has been a great deal of pressure on companies to adhere to very low levels and thus manufacturers have been self-regulating with ongoing testing.
Consumers started to become more aware of potential arsenic risks in brown rice due to the 2012 Dartmouth study and subsequent Consumer Report study. Manufacturers’ fear is that rice is being singled out even when an element maybe relatively low compared to possible levels in other fruits, vegetables and grains that consumers are not being made aware of.
2. What are the biggest flaws in the Monmouth study (regarding testing methodology, conclusions, or whatever is worth pointing out)?
If they had conducted third-party verification testing prior the news going worldwide, manufacturers could have avoided all the potential harm to the world’s 3rd largest crop’s reputation. Unfortunately, flawed research led to implied credibility when the study was presented at an industry conference and when dozens of media took the study at its word.
When the researcher was asked how he knew where the rice was sourced from, he said he bought it from a New Jersey grocery store and if it said “Manufactured in China” he noted China as the source. As manufacturers we know that that is not precise enough, especially when “China” covers over 3.7million sq. miles and where a product is sourced vs processed can be two different places. Just to note, the media did not speak directly to the researcher. Due to lack of ability to determine exact areas, it might have been more accurate to name the companies and not the countries.
When testing the finished product there are too many factors affecting the lead levels including what it was harvested with and transported in, the facility it was processed in, the packaging it touched, etc. There is less chance of error if the researcher goes straight to the source where the rice is grown.
3. Certain regions (i.e. the Hunan Province in China) might be more prone to contamination than others. How can food processing firms that use rice in their products be certain the supply they’re getting is okay?
When it comes to either naturally occurring or pollution-based lead, there is variation from year to year and season to season. Because factors are always changing, manufacturers must not take anything for granted and must be diligent as part of GMPs. They have to either have an excellent broker or personally take responsibility. Manufacturers need to know if it has been tested at its source and that the tests show the levels are safe.
4. Are there any foreseen changes in rice labeling arising from the Monmouth study?
If there are labeling changes it will be after the FDA completes their current evaluation of heavy metal levels in foods and makes their recommendations. In the meantime manufacturers will continue to self-regulate. Despite limited resources, the FDA is doing a great job of making thoughtful decisions to provide security in both the short and long terms. When they found evidence of melamine in rice protein (manufacturers added to falsely increase the tested protein levels) they immediately implemented a quarantine and testing process still in place today.
Manufacturers are hoping that as studies are done to test levels of lead and other elements in finished products, that there are more studies measuring levels at the source and to determine whether there is any potential long-term danger.