This isn’t a new story. Last year researchers at Dartmouth discovered that brown rice, fruit juices and a widely used sweetener, organic brown rice syrup, contained high levels of arsenic. I wrote about it here and here.
What brings me back to this subject is a blog from the NY Times I stumbled across from last November. Lundberg Family Farms of California is a producer of organic brown rice syrup, and various rices including brown rice. Readers were concerned and a member of Lundberg’s family agreed to be interviewed about the issue.
What the interview shows is how rationalizations and hustling take place when you have a horse in the race. And yes, we can throw in a little smidgen of hypocrisy given that Lundberg was a big contributor vocally and financially to the Prop.37 right-to-know campaign. During the campaign I wrote this:
The folks at labelgmos.org say they are members of a coalition called CaliforniaRightToKnow. Now who are they? It was started by Grant Lundberg who runs Lundberg Family Farms in Richville, CA. It is a family run farm that was a pioneer in organic farming.
The farm consists of 14,000 acres and grows both organic and conventional crops. It has an annual revenue (2007) of $48.9 million. The farm is well-known for its innovative contributions to sustainable agriculture and treatment of its workforce. Lundberg is no slouch. He has a Master of Science in Agricultural Economics. So, the question is, how did he come to become an ardent supporter of an anti-GMO initiative, donating $200,000? We know that cross-pollination can happen in any method of farming. But Lundberg grows 70% organic and 30% conventional crops.
If cross-pollination might occur, how does Lundberg ensure that there is no cross-pollination or drift of pesticides from his conventional to organic crops? I reached out to Lundberg via email to find out the answer to this question and a few others, but through a spokesman, he declined to comment.
On the NY Times blog, Tim Schultz, a Lundberg by marriage, did the smart thing and got out in front of the issue, answering readers’ concerns.
A few readers suggested we might be farming polluted ground. A challenge for us is that according to the 1984 U.S. Geological Survey, the average level of naturally occurring arsenic in U.S. soil is 7 parts per million or 7,000 parts per billion. It can be anywhere from .1 parts per million, which is 100 parts per billion, to 97 parts per million, which is 97,000 parts per billion. What this says to me is that arsenic is naturally occurring, and it’s not something we’ve done to the ground. ( my emphasis) I don’t dispute that we haven’t treated the environment particularly well as a society. However there is a lot of naturally occurring arsenic in the soil, and my guess is that it’s been there for millennia. (my emphasis)
We have continued to update our site with new information. We also attend any forums we hear about, where information is presented by arsenic specialists and rice researchers.
The biggest opportunity for mitigation we see at the moment is looking to reduce uptake of arsenic in the soil by the rice. Some varieties of rice seem to take up less and it appears basmati is that way. So we want to find out what is different in the basmati plant from, let’s say, the medium grain rice.
Okay. What do you take away from that? What I take away is they don’t know what the health issues are, if any. Yet, he doesn’t make any statements about putting a hold on their manufacturing of brown rice syrup or selling brown rice until the health effects are known. They don’t offer to put a label on their products alerting consumers their products may contain arsenic. In essence, Schultz pretty much dismisses the possible danger saying the arsenic is naturally occurring.
Unfortunately, not much is known about how arsenic in foods affects human health over a long period of time. But we do know it can be toxic. The FDA only sets levels for drinking water. But, unlike GM foods which have no known toxins, brown rice and brown rice syrup do have a known toxin. And it doesn’t matter whether the rice is organic or not. So, Lundberg Farms, big right-to know advocates, have a known toxic substance in their products. Shouldn’t that require a label?
Schultz doesn’t address those issues and he responded to suggestions that company perform its own tests.
That was an interesting idea, but we think it would be challenging to match or exceed the kind of scientific research places like the F.D.A. or Codex do on a national and international scale. They’ve got such incredible scientific resources at their disposal and there are a lot of really talented people working on this.
But wait, a November 2012 report by Consumer Reports quotes Grant Lundberg as saying they are testing samples batches and any information they learn will be forwarded to the FDA. Kudos to them, but what about the right-to-know that Lundberg products contain arsenic?
I emailed Lunderg’s PR person asking if they label their products or have any plans to label. After three days, I have yet to hear back.
The comment board was full of major league rationalizations. The anti-GMO crowd decries Big Organic, but given that Lundberg’s farm is 14,000 acres and their income is around $48 million/year, it is leaps and bounds over the average organic farm size and income. But commenters rationalize its size by noting it is owned by a “family. ”
–I did not realize that Lundberg does not fit the 160 acre family farm. I believe that is because they do still feel like a family farm, a close-knit community of hard-working people putting in the hours and dedication to produce the flavorful abundance we feast on. I especially love the colorful rice blends! I am glad though that they have the resources to spend on staying on top of current investigations.
–Lundberg is a family business. Their family is in the business of rice. The fact that they make millions of dollars (or even tens of millions of dollars) in revenue (or god forbid, profits) is of no consequence. They provide jobs to hundreds of people and they farm the land and produce a food staple that is a staple in our diets. They are a for profit company, and that is still a good thing in the US.
Wow. Just wow.
And here is my favorite:
While we’re all worrying about arsenic in rice, there must be areas of Asia’s rice-growing regions where higher levels of arsenic are naturally occurring. Are people who eat this rice historically sicker? Does anyone know? In the meantime I’ll keep enjoying Lundberg basmati brown rice.
The Koch brothers are family too.
They did respond, but when I asked about the label…*crickets*