The fruit juice industry is keeping quiet these days, not relishing a public debate over how much arsenic should be allowed in juices, particularly apple and grape juice.
Arsenic is a scary word. In 2011, Consumer Reports and the Dr. Oz television show raised concerns when they reported that testing found levels above 10 parts per billion of arsenic in some samples of apple juice. Not having a frame of reference to know what 10 ppb means, some parents panicked. They did not know their children would need to drink hundreds of thousands of quarts of apple juice in one sitting to get a lethal dose of arsenic.
The publicity generated political pressure, which turned into demands that the Food and Drug Administration “do something.” FDA is now in a process and is closing a comment period in November.
The Juice Products Association, based in Washington, D.C., speaking for its 158 members, has tried to soothe the public, and it has appealed to the Food and Drug Administration to use science-based information to set a good standard.
There are some problems. The standard set by the Environmental Protection Agency for arsenic in drinking water is 10 parts per billion, and that standard is now being considered by the Food and Drug Administration as the allowable limit for inorganic arsenic in apple juice.
That level could be a problem for the juice business. Not only are juices mostly water, but both apples and grapes are often grown on soil with a history of use of arsenic products for control of insects and diseases. Arsenic also occurs naturally in soil and water. If fruit is grown using ordinary water and soil that contain arsenic, whether naturally occurring or from old pesticides, it is highly likely that fruit juices would contain arsenic as well.
Tom Hurson, the vice president for ingredient and foodservice sales at Tree Top Inc. in Selah, Washington, was asked during the U.S. Apple Association’s Crop and Outlook Conference in Chicago in August why apple juice may have been the target.
It’s a perplexing problem, he said, but likely because apple juice has high emotional value, being a beloved family staple made from the icon fruit for good health.
While FDA studies in 2011 showed that 95 percent of the apple juice samples contain less than 10 ppb of total arsenic and all samples contained inorganic arsenic levels below 10 ppb, the key question is whether the industry can live with a standard that suggests apple juice is on the margin of safety.
Patricia Faison, technical director for the Juice Products Association, spoke about the issue at the Chicago apple meeting, and also responded to questions asked by Good Fruit Grower more recently.
GFG: Is arsenic in juice a “real” issue or just driven by fear of the word arsenic?
Faison: Fear of the word arsenic is driving consumer concern because most people associate it with its use as a short-term poison in high doses. In fact, arsenic is a naturally occurring element in the earth’s crust. Naturally occurring elements such as arsenic are present in the soil, air, and water, so arsenic is found in very low, harmless levels in many foods and beverages, and always has been.
GFG: Is there good science to help determine what the action levels in juice should be?
Faison: Arsenic is a very well-studied substance. There are extensive data from epidemiologic, laboratory animal, and mechanistic studies that provide very good evidence to guide determinations of safe levels of exposure. FDA’s current exposure limit is derived from studies of a particularly sensitive group of people (due to poor nutrition) who were exposed to high concentrations of arsenic in food and water throughout their lives. That limit also takes into account juice consumption rates for both children and adults. The science shows that FDA’s current exposure limit for arsenic in juice provides a substantial margin of safety that errs on the side of being conservatively health-protective of all ages.
GFG: What do the members of the Juice Products Association want you to accomplish and what response do they want from government?
Faison: We want consumers to know that apple juice is a nutritious beverage and it is safe to consume. We rely on the Food and Drug Administration to establish guidance/regulations for foods and beverages that are based on sound science.
GFG: What do you expect to happen, and when?
Faison: At this time, the FDA is accepting comments on the “Draft Guidance for Industry on Arsenic in Apple Juice: Action Level” until November 12, 2013. Following this deadline, the agency will publish a final guidance; however, the time frame for publication of the final guidance has not been announced. •