In the last several months, news reports have raised concerns about levels of arsenic and lead in apple and grape juices and concentrates. The widespread popularity of juice drinks – including among children – has elevated the degree of alarm, despite reassurances from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that levels of contaminants in the juices are safe. Now two members of Congress – Frank Pallone (D-NJ) and Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) have urged the FDA to implement enforceable standards on arsenic and other metals in foods and beverages and in February introduced legislation (H.R. 3984) that would require the FDA to set arsenic and lead standards for beverages containing fruit juice that are at least as stringent as those for bottled water.
The events leading up to this development stem from claims published by television personality “Dr. Oz” and Consumer Reports magazine in fall and winter 2011-2012, regarding levels of arsenic and lead in apple and grape juice. The FDA disagreed with the reports’ testing methodologies and analyses and tested both the Dr. Oz juice samples and 94 of its own. Based on its findings, the FDA reassured the public in a December 2011 publication that “the very low levels detected during our analysis of [both sets of samples] are not a public health risk and the juice products are safe for consumption.”
Notwithstanding this conclusion, given the importance of food safety, the FDA said it would collect additional information and consider the need to set guidance or a standard for allowable arsenic in fruit juice. The agency has also initiated a more thorough and updated assessment of the acceptable level for lead in juices. Unwilling to wait, and worried that the FDA would proceed by guidance rather than setting a strict limit, the bill’s sponsors would require the FDA to set arsenic and lead standards within two years that are at least as strict as those for drinking water.
Meanwhile, many fruit juice sellers have been sued under California Proposition 65 over allegations that lead levels in the juices require warning labels under that California law. These cases are pending, while new reports have surfaced that FDA testing of oranges and orange juice imported from Brazil and Canada has indicated the presence of carbendazim, a pesticide not approved for use on oranges in the United States. And other recent news releases have focused on baby formula sweetened with organic brown rice syrup, an alternative to high-fructose corn syrup, which found arsenic levels in the syrup used to make the baby formula above the drinking water standard, according to a Dartmouth College study. The FDA has initiated a study of rice and rice products to determine the level and type of arsenic in test samples. Although enactment of the proposed legislation seems unlikely, FDA action in the form of guidance directed at fruit juices and cereal products is anticipated, along with continued (if not increased) monitoring of these products, particularly imports.
Plainly, companies that market juice-based products and other food products that may contain naturally occurring arsenic, lead, or other chemicals of concern should follow these developments closely. They may also want to consider investigating their supply chains to determine what levels of these chemicals are present in their products and appropriately addressing the results of such an inquiry as part of their internal sustainability or other policies.