Consumer Reports Challenges FDA's 'High' Arsenic Limits in Apple Juice, Citing Health Risks to Children

Consumer Reports Challenges FDA's 'High' Arsenic Limits in Apple Juice, Citing Health Risks to Children
Food and Drug Administration (FDA) headquarters in White Oak, Md., on Aug. 29, 2020. (Andrew Kelly/Reuters)
Caden Pearson

Consumer Reports has criticized the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) final guidance on limits for inorganic arsenic in apple juice, citing concerns about the health risks to children.

The FDA issued its final guidance on June 1, setting the action level for inorganic arsenic in apple juice at 10 parts per billion (ppb), a level initially proposed in 2013.

The agency's testing revealed a decrease in inorganic arsenic levels, with many samples showing levels below 3 ppb and 5 ppb. However, some apple juice samples still had levels at 10 ppb, leading to the establishment of the action level at that level.

Consumer Reports, a consumer advocacy organization, disagrees with the FDA's belief that 10 ppb can be considered a safe level achievable through good manufacturing practices. The organization stressed the importance of lower limits on inorganic arsenic to protect public health, especially for foods consumed by children.

Brian Ronholm, director of food policy for Consumer Reports, expressed criticism of the FDA's action level.

“Today’s announcement by FDA will have minimal impact on public health because the action level should be lower than 10 ppb based on current science,” Ronholm said in a June 1 statement.

Ronholm further criticized the timing of the FDA's announcement, saying that the majority of the industry had already met this level, rendering the FDA's action virtually irrelevant.

“Nonetheless, it is encouraging that the FDA has recently undertaken a renewed focus on addressing food chemicals and heavy metals,” he added. “Hopefully, the FDA will continue to focus on these issues and monitor and take action if they find troubling levels of inorganic arsenic in apple juice.”

Consumer Reports supports the use of action levels as a means of enforcement and accountability for regulators and apple juice manufacturers. However, it argues that the FDA's action level of 10 ppb is too high and may pose potential risks to children's health and calls for a lower level of 3 ppb.

The advocacy organization conducted its own testing in 2018 and found elevated levels of cadmium, inorganic arsenic, and lead in 21 out of 45 tested fruit juices. The majority of the tested juices had inorganic arsenic levels below the FDA's limit, indicating that manufacturers can reduce the content in their products.

Feasible to Lower Inorganic Arsenic Limits: Consumer Reports

Consumer Reports emphasized that their own tests have shown it is both feasible and necessary to establish lower limits on inorganic arsenic in apple juice in order to protect public health. They believe that stricter regulations are required to ensure the safety of consumers.

Arsenic can be found in food due to its presence in the environment where food is produced and processed. It can occur naturally or result from human activities like the use of pesticides containing arsenic or pollution from mining, fracking, and coal-fired power plants.

Exposure to inorganic arsenic has been associated with various adverse health effects in humans, including cancer, diabetes, negative impacts on birth outcomes, and cardiovascular and neurodevelopmental issues.

The FDA acknowledges that completely eliminating arsenic from the environment or food supply is not feasible. Therefore, they set action levels to inform the industry about contamination levels that exceed safety thresholds and could render certain foods unsafe for consumption. These action levels serve as guidelines to protect public health in situations where it is not possible to eliminate arsenic entirely.

According to the FDA's report, an extensive study spanning almost ten years revealed that the average level of arsenic in apple juice was 4.6 ppb. However, certain samples exhibited significantly higher levels, reaching up to 44 ppb.

The presence of arsenic in apple juice is of particular concern for children, as they consume a larger quantity of the liquid relative to their body weight compared to adults. The FDA highlighted research indicating a potential connection between exposure to this chemical element and negative effects on the neurological development of infants and children.

The FDA's action level of 10 ppb for inorganic arsenic in apple juice is not a mandatory requirement. Nevertheless, the FDA expects that this recommended level will encourage manufacturers to voluntarily reduce the levels of inorganic arsenic in apple juice.

The agency will continue to monitor the arsenic levels in apple juice samples, and if any testing reveals levels above 10 ppb, the FDA may take enforcement action to address the issue.

However, the vast majority of the juices tested had inorganic arsenic levels below the FDA's 10 ppb limit, the agency said; 58 percent of the tested juices had levels below Consumer Reports' recommended cutoff of 3 ppb. These findings indicate that manufacturers have the capability to significantly reduce the inorganic arsenic content in their juice products, the FDA said.

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