The Food and Agriculture Department (FAD) of the Ghana Standards Authority (GSA) has stated firmly that its forensic analysis of lead metal levels in imported rice complies with permissible international prescriptions.
Mr Clifford E. Frimpong, Head of FAD of GSA was reacting to a study in the United States alleging the presence of potentially high levels of lead in imported rice from the commodity production countries.
He said the tolerable levels of lead is pegged at 0.2 mg/kg under the Codex Alimentarius Commission (CAC), an inter-governmental oversight body tasked to implement the joint FAO/WHO Food Standards, respectively established in 1995 and by the World Health Assembly resolution 16.42 of 1963.
The study, which was presented at the “245th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society” in April, showed that rice imported from certain countries may contain high levels of lead that could pose health risks, particularly to infants and children.
Dr Tsanangurayi Tongesayi, who headed the analysis of rice imported from Asia, Europe, and South America, pointed out that imports account for only seven percent of the rice consumed in the US. With vast rice fields in Louisiana, California, Texas, Arkansas, and Mississippi, the US is a major producer and exporter of the grain.
He however added that imports of rice and rice flour are increasing by more than 200 percent since 1999 with the grain becoming the staple food for three billion people worldwide.
Dr Tongesayi’s team, at the Monmouth University in New Jersey, found that levels of lead in rice imported into the United States ranged from six to 12 mg/kg. From those numbers, they calculated the daily exposure levels for various populations and then made comparisons with the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) provisional total tolerable intake (PTTI) levels for lead.
They detected the highest amounts of lead in rice from Taiwan and China. Samples from the Czech Republic, Bhutan, Italy, India, and Thailand had significantly high levels of lead as well. Analysis of rice samples from Pakistan, Brazil, and other countries were still underway.
Because of the increase in rice imports into the United States, Dr Tongesayi said that rice from other nations has made its way into a wide variety of stores, supermarket chains and restaurants.
“Such findings present a situation that is particularly worrisome given that infants and children are especially vulnerable to the effects of lead poisoning,” Dr Tongesayi said.
“For infants and children, the daily exposure levels from eating the rice products analysed in this study would be 30-60 times higher than the FDA’s PTTI levels. Asians consume more rice, and for these infants and children, exposures would be 60-120 times higher. For adults, the daily exposure levels were 20-40 times higher than the PTTI levels.”
Dr Tongesayi said “If you look through the scientific literature, especially on India and China, (some farmers) irrigate their crops with raw sewerage effluent and untreated industrial effluent,” he explained.
“Research has been done in those countries, and concerns have been raised because of those practices, but it’s still ongoing.”
Dr Tongesayi also said that the increasing practice of sending electronic waste to developing countries and the pollution it leads to only exacerbates the problem.
“With a globalised food market, we eat food from every corner of the world, but pollution conditions are… different from region to region, agricultural practices are different from region to region, but we ignore that.
“Maybe we need international regulations that will govern production and distribution of food.”
Mr Frimpong indicated that their analysis for 2011/12 period revealed that half of the several rice brands sampled through the ports did not contain any level of lead with the other half showing some levels of lead contamination but far below the permissible limit.
“Only one brand failed the test out of the 30 samples analysed in the first quarter of this year and was disallowed to pass.”
He said food safety issues are important due to the presence of heavy metallic contaminants including lead, arsenic, cadmium and mercury, and as well as afflatoxins and pesticide residues.
Lead is known to be harmful to many organs, the central nervous and immune systems, and is a particular risk for young children, who suffer significant developmental problems, if exposed to elevated lead levels in the soil and water bodies.
Because rice is grown in heavily irrigated conditions, it is more susceptible than other staple crops to environmental pollutants in irrigation.
Mr Kofi Amponsah-Bediako, Head of Public Affairs of GSA assured the rice consuming publics that GSA would ensure only bags that guarantee public safety are passed onto the markets to uphold quality standards.
According to a US Department of Agriculture source, Ghana imported 600 thousand metric tons of milled rice worth about 450 million dollars in 2012 alone, from the US, Taiwan, Vietnam, Thailand and China.
By Maxwell Awumah