GENEVA, SWITZERLAND — The United Nation’s food standards body, the Codex Alimentarius Commission, has adopted new standards to protect consumer health worldwide, including setting out maximum acceptable levels of arsenic in rice. 

Jointly run by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO), the Codex Alimentarius Commission sets international food safety and quality standards to promote safer and more nutritious food for consumers worldwide. Codex standards serve in many cases as a basis for national legislation, and provide the food safety benchmarks for international food trade.

The annual meeting was attended by representatives from 170 countries and the E.U., as well as 30 international governmental and non-governmental organizations.

For the first time, Codex has adopted a maximum level for arsenic in rice of 0.2 mg/kg.

Long-term exposure to arsenic can cause cancer and skin lesions. It has also been associated with developmental effects, heart disease, diabetes, and damage the nervous system and brain.

Arsenic is naturally present at high levels in the groundwater and soil in some parts of the world. The toxic element can enter the food chain when it is absorbed by crops from water and soil. 

Rice in particular can take up more arsenic than other crops and as a staple food for millions of people can contribute significantly to arsenic exposure, which is detrimental to human health. 

Arsenic contamination in rice is of particular concern in some Asian countries where paddy fields are irrigated with groundwater containing arsenic-rich sediments pumped from shallow tube wells. Improved irrigation and agricultural practices can help reduce arsenic contamination, for example growing crops in raised beds instead of flooded fields. 

The Commission also agreed to develop a new code of practice that will help countries comply with the maximum level set and provide producers with good agricultural and manufacturing techniques to prevent and reduce contamination.

Codex also recommended that the use of certain veterinary drugs should be restricted in food-producing animals in order to prevent residual amounts of the drugs remaining in meat, milk, eggs or honey. 

The eight drugs (chloramphenicol, malachite green, carbadox, furazolidone, nitrofural, chlorpromazine, stilbenes and olaquinadox), including antimicrobials and growth promoters, can potentially have adverse effects on human health and may contribute to the development of drug resistance.

Countries also agreed on maximum levels of pesticide residues and additives in foods as well as maximum levels of contaminants, including toxins called fumonisins that are produced by mould growing on maize. Other measures include new safety and quality standards for foods such as raw scallops, passion fruit, durian and okra.