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(January 2020)

Arsenic is a chemical element found in water, air, food and soil as a naturally occurring substance or due to contamination from human activity.

Arsenic occurs in organic and inorganic forms. The organic forms are of relatively low toxicity while the inorganic forms present a greater hazard. Both forms of arsenic appear naturally in soil and ground  water and as such, their presence (in extremely low levels) in foods is unavoidable.

Monitoring arsenic levels in food

FSANZ and other Australian and New Zealand government agencies continuously monitor the food supply to ensure it is safe and that foods comply with standards for chemical contamination.

Our most recent Australian Total Diet Study investigated total and inorganic arsenic in a range of different food types including infant foods. Levels of both total and inorganic arsenic were consistent with international studies and lower than maximum levels (MLs) in the Food Standards Code (the Code).

In addition, several targeted surveys have been undertaken by FSANZ in recent years including monitoring of inorganic arsenic in seaweed (2013), total and inorganic arsenic in apple and pear juice (2014), and tin, lead and arsenic in tinned fruits (2015).

Most recently, FSANZ provided input into an analytical survey commissioned by the New Zealand Ministry for Primary Industries[1]. The survey looked at inorganic arsenic in 200 rice and rice-based food products from Australia and New Zealand, including foods for infants and young children. Where present, inorganic arsenic levels in rice and rice-based products were low compared to levels reported from comparable studies overseas.

We also have an ongoing program of work to monitor new developments, such as research, to ensure the standards set in the Code continue to be safe. We also collaborate with international standard setting agencies and expert committees and forums to share information.

Maximum levels for arsenic in food

There are limits in the Code for inorganic arsenic in certain foods. Foods sold in Australia and new Zealand (including imported food) must comply with these limits.

A limit of 1mg/kg applies to seaweed and molluscs, and for fish and crustacea, inorganic arsenic is not allowed above a level of 2mg/kg.

There is also a limit in the Code for total arsenic of 1mg/kg for cereals (including rice) and 0.5 mg/kg for salt.

These limits, which are set at levels consistent with protecting public health and safety and reasonably achievable, cover the major foods that are likely to contribute to arsenic exposure. They also take into account the entire population which includes sub-groups such as infants, children and the elderly.

Maximum levels are one of a number of risk management strategies we use to keep our exposure to arsenic at safe levels.

Why are the maximum levels in the Code different to other countries?

It is common for regulatory limits to vary across international jurisdictions. The maximum levels set by countries take into account chemical concentration data unique to that jurisdiction and may also use different analytical methods to measure the contaminant.

For example, our limits are higher than those in the EU and reflect data and analysis unique to the Australian environment and food supply.

Arsenic in rice-based infant food products

FSANZ is aware of a recent Australian study on arsenic concentrations and dietary exposure from rice-based infant food which has raised concerns about exposure levels in infants and children.

We have reviewed the study and our advice is that parents and caregivers should not be concerned about the safety of rice-based infant food products available for sale in Australia.

Our extensive monitoring of arsenic in cereal based infant products (i.e. rice cereals) continue to show levels of arsenic are below the maximum permitted levels in Australia.

These maximum levels take into account all population groups including sub-groups such as infants, children and the elderly. For example our limit of 1mg/kg for cereals applies to all cereals, including infant cereal products.

Our advice for consumers is to eat a mixed diet with a variety of foods to minimise any risks associated with eating a more limited diet.

Arsenic in seaweed and other foods

Some seafood and seaweed products can contain high levels of inorganic arsenic. These products include hijiki seaweed, a brown seaweed that is black in appearance and usually comes in shredded form. It is mostly added to other foods such as rice and soups. Hijiki seaweed is not used in sushi products or as a seaweed wrap.

Imported hijiki seaweed is tested for arsenic (by the Department of Agriculture) as it is considered a 'risk food'. Due to this classification, 100 per cent of hijiki seaweed consignments are initially inspected and tested for inorganic arsenic. Hijiki consignments that do not meet the limit for arsenic in the Code cannot be imported.

While there are measures in place to protect people from high levels of arsenic, people who regularly consume high levels of hijiki seaweed, along with other foods that may contain arsenic, may have a higher potential health risk from exposure than the general population. As with our advice for rice-based food products, we recommend people eat a mixed diet with a variety of foods to minimise any risks associated with eating a more limited diet.

If you are concerned about your exposure to arsenic, consult a health professional, such as a doctor.

More information

[1] Ashmore E, Molyneux S, Watson S, Miles G & Pearson A (2019) Inorganic arsenic in rice and rice products in New Zealand and Australia. Food Additives and Contaminants Part B, DOI: 10.1080/19393210.2019.1651403.

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