A recent study by researchers at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, USA, published in Environmental Health Perspectives on February 16, called into question the presence of arsenic in some organic products. While the study itself focused on toddler formula, health bars and high energy foods, the resulting interpretation of the findings failed to address the arsenic issue as a serious concern for all food production, the Organic Trade Association (OTA) points out.

“In fact, organic production practices are part of the solution to reducing the application of arsenic-laden herbicides, as well as toxic and persistent pesticides known to create health problems,” said Christine Bushway, OTA’s executive director and CEO. “These applications are prohibited in organic agriculture. Moreover, this is verified through third-party inspection and strict regulations.”

The OTA said arsenic is a natural element that can contaminate soil, as well as groundwater used for drinking and irrigation. Legacy residues from decades of routine use of arsenic-based herbicides and insecticides pose a real threat to all food production, organic and conventional. Regardless of how it is raised, rice plants growing in soils still contaminated with arsenic will extract the element from the soil, and some will be present in the grain harvested from those plants.

The researchers said organic brown rice syrup is used as a sweetener in organic food products and that one toddler formula with OBRS as the primary ingredient had concentrations six times the EPA safe drinking water limit for arsenic (Baby’s Only Organic made by U.S. company Nature’s One). Any rice product destined for baby food or children’s food should come only from regions known to have arsenic-free soils, the OTA said.

“The levels of exposure and risk from arsenic in certain infant food products published in Environmental Health Perspectives Online are serious and warrant government action. However, it is not uncommon in the food supply nor unique to rice or arsenic,” said Charles Benbrook, chief scientist at The Organic Center.

“Every day, millions of servings of fresh fruits and vegetables, and less frequently fruit juices expose children to pesticide residues and risk above EPA-set safe levels, and sometimes at levels several-fold above what EPA regards as acceptable. A significant share of these high-exposure food servings contains residues of neurotoxic organophosphate (OP) insecticides. In the interim, consumption of organic fruit and vegetables is the surest way to avoid high-risk pesticide exposures.”

U.S. NGO The Cornucopia Institute, which promotes economic justice for family scale farming, said: “Arsenic-based pesticides were widely used in this country in the 20th century and are still used in other parts of the world. Through what we call the ‘circle of poison’, the United States, in some cases, continues to manufacture agrichemicals that we have banned for use, to be sprayed on crops in other countries and then, outrageously, we allow those imports to come back to feed our families. The US also continues to allow arsenic feed additives in poultry production.

“Our advice, as always, is to eat as near 100% organic diet as possible. It should be pointed out that arsenic contamination can occur in both conventional and organic rice, but organic foods will lower your overall toxic load. Difficult decisions need to be made, especially by parents of young children, in terms of fruit, fruit juices, infant formula and rice-based cereals for babies.”