A Consumer Reports article on arsenic in rice continues to impact consumer confidence and sales of some rice products.
Consumer Reports  released the arsenic article on Sept. 19, along with a very well coordinated media campaign, citing its own study which indicated “worrisome” levels of arsenic in rice and rice products. It called out specific brands and the need for federal standards for arsenic in food.
The study, poorly conceived and inconclusive, nonetheless generated sensational media coverage, in which Consumer Reports urged consumers to limit their consumption of rice. It was sheer sensationalism and worked – sort of.
At the recent USA Rice Outlook Conference, Betsy Ward, president and CEO of the USA Rice Federation, noted that comprehensive analysis of sales in supermarkets and other retail outlets indicated that sales in the domestic market took a hit in the days following the news. Sales in the total rice category declined 3 percent in the week after the Consumer Reports study, while brown rice sales declined 6.5 percent.
The latest data, for the week of Oct. 27, shows a growth of about 2 percent in the total rice category, but still a 3 percent decline for brown rice.
On the Web, blogs continue to ring the arsenic alarm and some in Congress are pressuring FDA to regulate arsenic in rice and arsenic in food.
The impact certainly could have been a lot worse if not for the quick response of the rice industry.
In advance of the Consumer Reports article, the USA Rice Federation informed members and key food industry stakeholders of the issue and identified the need for a public education campaign to address consumer concerns.
Ward noted that a key element of the rice industry’s response was media outreach and the development of a consumer website, arsenicfacts.usarice.com, which received over 36 million impressions after Consumer Reports launched its misguided campaign.
USA Rice also identified scientific and medical experts to deliver key messages regarding the safety of U.S. grown rice and rice products, which resulted in over 500 stories specifically quoting USA Rice Federation spokespersons, media releases or web content.
The rice industry also provided members, customers and key congressional offices with statements from USA Rice and FDA emphasizing that no dietary changes regarding rice consumption were necessary.
The U.S. rice industry has to stay the course and use sound science, thoughtfulness and communication to stay in front of the next round of media coverage, while continuing to fund research that could minimize arsenic levels in rice.
Meanwhile, FDA is conducting an actual scientific study on arsenic in rice and will post results on 1,200 rice product samples by the end of the year. From this, FDA will develop a risk assessment, followed by a risk management plan which could include some standards for allowable levels of arsenic in rice.
By the way, that’s the real story about arsenic in rice.