After years of pressure from consumer advocacy groups, regulators are setting tougher standards for arsenic levels in apple juice. On July 12, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) proposed apple juice should be allowed the same maximum level currently permitted in drinking water, 10 parts per billion (ppb).
The FDA has been testing for arsenic in apple and other fruit juices for two decades yet saw no cause for concern, even when other researchers said otherwise.
Independent tests in 2011 found some samples that were as much as five times as much as the 10 ppb limit the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) set for drinking water in 2006.
Based on these tests—and given that so many apple juice drinkers are kids—Empire State Consumer Project, Food and Water Watch, and others began calling on the FDA to improve its arsenic standards. When the Dr. Oz Show devoted an entire episode to the issue, public outcry grew to a fevered pitch.
Regulators called the show’s report “extremely irresponsible,” because of its failure to make a distinction between organic arsenic, which passes through the body relatively fast, and inorganic arsenic, which is linked to cancer and other serious health problems.
FDA said that a lack of distinction between the two types of arsenic is the reason why regulators tested consistently lower levels.
According to the FDA, trace amounts of arsenic in food is inevitable. “This chemical element is found in the Earth’s crust,” said FDA Deputy Commissioner Michael Taylor in a recent agency blog post. “It’s everywhere in the environment and can be found in water, air and soil, in both organic and inorganic forms. Human activities also can introduce arsenic into the environment. That means that it can also be found in some foods and beverages.”
But critics say more should still be done to limit exposure. Arsenic-based pesticides are one reason that the poisonous element ends up in food. While U.S. agriculture stopped using these chemicals decades ago, other countries, such as China, continue their use.
According to the FDA, juice sold by a single company can be made from concentrate that is sourced throughout the world—this is why two batches from the same supplier can have very different arsenic levels. According to Food and Water Watch, two-thirds of the apple juice that Americans consume—more than 400 million gallons annually—comes from China. The advocacy group urges the FDA to focus more attention on imported foods, especially those most often eaten by children.
“We’ve been lobbying for two years for these stricter standards for arsenic levels in apple juice,” Food and Water Watch said in a July 12 statement. “Now, we need to make sure they are finalized and enforced.”
The FDA will accept comments on the new draft regulation for 60 days before making the new arsenic limit official.