ARLINGTON, VIRGINIA – Yesterday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture hosted an all-day public meeting in partnership with the U.S. Food & Drug Administration on the latter agency’s Closer to Zero Initiative (C2Z) to reduce children’s exposure to toxic elements from food. Speakers included government officials, regulators, researchers, stakeholders, industry representatives, and others. USA Rice CEO Betsy Ward testified on behalf of the rice industry.
The meeting opened with an overview by the FDA on current Closer to Zero efforts and updates on the initiative from representatives of the USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and Food and Nutrition Service (FNS). Participants then heard about USDA ARS research programs for rice, sweet potatoes, carrots, and spinach.
Rice research topics presented were Mitigating Arsenic in Rice, A Path Forward from Dr. Anna McClung; Plant Genes and Mechanisms that Regulate Arsenic Uptake, Transport, and Accumulation in Rice Grains, from Dr. Shannon Pinson; and the Impact on Heavy Metals in Rice Grains Due to Cultural Management delivered by Dr. Michele Reba.
Next, attendees were briefed on ARS Food Safety research followed by an overview from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture on how the institute is supporting the C2Z initiative. A major point of discussion revolved around the Potential Economic Impacts of Food Safety Concerns on Producers and Consumers and how it relates to rice which was delivered by USDA Economic Research Service officials.
USA Rice CEO Betsy Ward kicked off the industry perspective portion of the meeting expressing support for the C2Z initiative’s science-based approach while dispelling falsehoods and consumer confusion fueled by activists. She was one of just five food and agriculture industry leaders who testified and addressed follow up questions. Other industry representatives were from the Sweet Potato Council, International Fresh Produce Association, Seafood Nutrition Partnership, and Nestle/Gerber.
“Rice is the only ingredient in baby food for which there already exists an FDA action level,” Ward began. “FDA set a very low limit for inorganic arsenic in rice used in infant rice cereal and their data show we meet that threshold.”
Ward reminded the group of the health benefits of rice, citing data and conclusions from the Centers for Disease Control’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.
“Rice is a naturally nutrient dense food delivering protein, fiber, and other important vitamins and minerals at a price point everyone can afford,” she said. “Consumption of rice baby cereal in the 0-24-month population was linked to better nutrient intake, which lead to better overall health and lower risk of disease. Infants who consumed baby cereal had greater consumption of nutrients like iron and calcium, and had lower intakes of unhealthy foods and ingredients setting up young eaters on a path of following positive eating and dietary patterns.”
Ward closed her remarks by promising continued industry transparency but urging FDA to stop sole reliance on end-product testing until action levels for all baby food ingredients can be developed.
“Since rice is the only product for which there is an action level, rice is disproportionately impacted by the current regulatory approach,” she said. “This can result in hesitancy or refusal of some manufacturers to use rice as an ingredient, even though U.S.-grown rice is below the FDA’s action level.”