Arsenic tainted apple juice has been making lots of headlines lately, prompting parents across America to wonder whether it is safe to feed their kids juice. In an ideal world parents could get a simple yes or no answer to this question and move on with their day. In the real world, a simple yes or no fails to shed light on significant problems in our food supply that will likely resurface somewhere down the road. The Arsenic in Apple Juice Scare of 2011 raises a whole host of additional questions beyond “is apple juice safe?” – questions about what we eat and drink, how we grow our food, and where we get our food information. Here are six of those questions:
1. Why are there such high levels of arsenic in apple juice anyway?
Consumer Reports and the FDA independently found arsenic in commercially-available apple juice that exceeded the recommended limits for drinking water (10ppb). Any good scientist will wonder how this arsenic got into apples. The answer is straight-forward: apple trees reflect the properties of the soil they are grown in. That means apples with higher levels of arsenic are likely to be grown in areas with arsenic-rich soil. A good scientist would then ask what make some areas more arsenic-rich than others. According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, “while arsenic from natural sources do enter the environment, releases from [manmade] sources far exceed those from natural sources. [Manmade] sources include metal mining and smelting, pesticide application, coal combustion, wood combustion, and waste incineration.” We don’t always do the best job of connecting the dots between how we treat the planet and the safety of our food supply, probably because there are lots of dots to get through. This is one very obvious example that human health and environmental impact are indeed tied to each other, and it would benefit us to draw these lines.
2. Why does the juice industry say apple juice is safe?
In “crises” like these, any company or industry will try to find ways to prevent losses in product sales. If you look closely at the Juice Products Association’s response statement to this controversy, they claim safety on the grounds that their products adhere to FDA guidelines. Thus, their determination of safety is what the FDA requires of them – and that doesn’t include a series of independent tests to ascertain the level of heavy metals in their products. Some would call this response following guidelines. Others would call it passing the buck. As a consumer, it’s just important for you to know it does not mean juice without arsenic.*
3. Is juice healthy for my child?
One of the primary principles of toxicology is the dose makes the poison. In other words, you only see negative health effects from a harmful substance after you are exposed to a certain level of the substance. To relate this to the current state of affairs, if apple juice contains high amounts of arsenic, and we are drinking lots of apple juice, it stands to reason that we’re getting close to that threshold of harm.
High levels of arsenic in juice is not in our direct control, but juice consumption is. The American Academy of Pediatrics has a well-defined position on fruit juice: it should be limited to 4-6oz/day for children 1-6 years old. An informal survey done by Consumer Reports reveals that over a third of parents don’t follow this recommendation. Many of us are up in arms about high levels of arsenic in apple juice, but we should also pay heed to how much juice we’re giving kids.
4. Why hasn’t the FDA set a standard for arsenic in juice?
It would be really easy to blame the FDA in this situation. They’ve let potentially harmful products go to supermarket shelves. They’ve been slow to set standards for arsenic in juice. But it’s important to keep in mind that the FDA is beholden to Congress (and in theory, us, the people). It’s also important to keep in mind that the FDA is beholden to the science of risk assessment, which is messy and imperfect. Should the FDA set standards based on how much apple juice we actually drink, or how much we should drink (and what would the juice industry have to say about such standards)? Beyond that, how realistic is it for the FDA to locate arsenic-rich soils around the world that produce arsenic-laden apples that are pulverized into arsenic-laden juice? Simply put, this scenario was not a bright red dot on the FDA’s radar (although the FDA’s periodic testing of juice concentrates indicates that it was somewhat aware of this risk). The complex nature of how we eat makes it nearly impossible to evaluate every single thread of risk, and so we have designed a public health response system that is reactionary. Finding arsenic-laden apple juice is the price we pay.
5. Even if the FDA sets a standard, does it have the ability to monitor this standard?
Now that there is more and more evidence to support setting an arsenic limit to juice products, it is worth asking whether the FDA has the bandwidth to monitor this standard in a comprehensive manner. As elaborated upon in previously, risk assessment is an imperfect science and having more time, hands, and money is always beneficial. Asking for more money isn’t really an option in the current economic climate (as it stands, Congress is debating whether or not to cut the FDA’s 2012 budget). The FDA is underfunded and understaffed to execute some of the tasks we want (and expect) it to carry out. So, while there is no doubt that setting a standard will help, it will in no way guarantee that tainted products won’t show up every so often.
6. What about lead and other heavy metals?
The controversy at hand focuses on arsenic and apple juice, but what about other heavy metals (lead and cadmium, specifically) and other popular fruit juices? How can we ensure that there aren’t other contaminants in our food we’ve failed to discover? There aren’t really any definitive answers, but there are signs that heavy metal contamination is present in other parts of our food supply.
These six questions aren’t meant to stir up fear, but to stir up debate about how to get out of this unknown territory we now are forced to explore because of a handful of poorly made decisions. If you are a parent, you should consider this controversy an opportunity to thoughtfully examine the decisions you make when it comes to nourishing your family. It’s no longer a simple yes or no.
*Since arsenic is naturally present in the environment, it is unlikely you’d ever find arsenic-free apple juice.