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Codex sets new maximum levels for lead and arsenic

By RJ Whitehead , 17-Jul-2014

With the safety of infant formula and Asia’s reliance on rice never far from the headlines, the United Nations body responsible for food standards has now set new acceptable levels of lead in the former and arsenic in the region’s biggest crop.

The Codex Alimentarius Commission, which is jointly run by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation and the World Health Organisation, is charged with setting international food safety and quality standards. 

In many cases, Codex standards serve as a basis for national legislation, and provide the food safety benchmarks for international food trade. 

Lead in formula

At an annual meeting this week, which was attended by representatives from 170 countries and the European Union, along with 30 international governmental and non-governmental organisations, the commission adopted a recommendation that no more than 0.01 mg/kg of lead should be permitted in infant formula. 

At levels greater than this, infants and young children are particularly vulnerable, with the development of the brain and nervous system harmed by the effects of lead consumption.

Lead occurs in the environment and trace amounts can end up in the ingredients that are used in the production of infant formula, although manufacturers can control this by sourcing raw materials from areas where lead is less present. 

Arsenic in rice 

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

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. 

Rice in particular can take up more arsenic than other crops and as an Asian staple, it can contribute significantly to arsenic exposure, which is detrimental to human health. 

Improved irrigation and agricultural practices can help reduce arsenic contamination, for example growing crops in raised beds instead of flooded fields, the commission said. 

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. 

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.

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