One of the world’s most vastly consumed foods, while attempting to obtain necessary nutrients from the earth, also pulls some of the deadliest toxins from the soil during its growth process.
The rice plant, and particularly brown rice, extracts toxins such as mercury, cadmium and arsenic from the soil, which can eventually pass into the digestive system of whatever consumes it, leading to a slew ofhealth problems.
The highest levels of heavy metals occur more so in brown rice because it doesn’t undergo the polishing process that white rice does. According to the Department of Agriculture, arsenic levels in brown rice are 10 times as high as white rice.
While arsenic and cadmium are present in the soil both naturally and unnaturally, the regions with the most potent concentrations are parts of Asia, such as Bangladesh and India, where arsenic-rich bedrock contaminates groundwater used for both drinking and for irrigation.
Other countries such as Cambodia, China and Vietnam all rely heavily on rice, posing a serious health risk to inhabitants of those regions.
Lower levels of the toxins are also found throughout the United States where areas ripe for farming aren’t excluded.
“Arsenic is an environmental contaminant. It occurs naturally and is taken up by plants from the water and soil when they’re growing, in particular rice,” said World Health Organization (WHO) food safety coordinator Angelika Tritscher.
After years of research spearheaded by China and Japan, the Codex Alimentarius Commission, which establishes food standards for the world, set a maximum 0.2 milligrams of arsenic per kilo of polished rice, the final product exported for consumption.
Scientists say long-term exposure to heavy metals such as arsenic can have health complications that appear gradually like cancer, skin lesions and diabetes, and can even cause detrimental, and usually irreversible, changes to the nervous system and brain.
At its annual meeting in Geneva, the 186-nation Codex Commission decided to develop a new code of practice for countries in order to help them meet the new standard by offering guidance on safer farming practices. Growing crops in raised beds, as opposed to flooded fields where water is pumped from shallow wells, can help protect against contaminated water, thus protecting food sources.
“The main driver for Codex standards is trade. But when we talk about safety standards, the main purpose is clearly to protect the health of consumers,” said Tritscher.
“Since rice is a very important stable food for many countries and many regions of the world, a significant part of the global population is affected.”
Codex Commission establishes guidelines for exposure to lead, growth hormones and more
The Commission also adopted a recommendation that no more than 0.01 mg per kg of lead should be allowed in infant formula, something that many food activists have long fought for.
“Lead occurs in the environment and trace amounts can end up in the ingredients that are used in the production of infant formula,” reported the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).
“Levels of lead in infant formula can be controlled by sourcing raw materials from areas where lead is less present.”
During the same meeting, the Commission recommended that veterinary drugs, such as growth hormones, be restricted in animals used for producing food in order to prevent drug residues from remaining in products like meat, milk, eggs or honey.
Because they can have adverse health effects on humans, the following eight drugs were recommended to be restricted: chloramphenicol, malachite green, carbadox, furazolidone, nitrofural, chlorpromazine, stilbenes and olaquinadox.
Jointly run by the WHO and the FAO, the Commission agreed to set limitations for pesticide residues and toxic additives used in foods by introducing new safety and quality standards for foods like raw scallops, passion fruit, durian and okra.
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