Government of Pakistan participates in establishing Codex Standard for Arsenic (As) in rice:
Study estimates that 95% of rice samples would to be compliant to these revised As limits
Following a number of concerns raised during 2013 regarding the food safety risks presented by the presence of inorganic arsenic in rice, the TRTAII project supported the Ministry of National Food Security and Research to contribute to the setting of an international standard under the Codex Alimentarius Commission, for the a maximum level for this important toxin.
Arsenic is a highly toxic element which is naturally present in higher levels in ground water drawn from alluvial soils (i.e. those deposited by rivers). The Indus valley is therefore one of the regions in the world where this hazard is ever present. In Pakistan arsenic contamination is prevalent mainly in Punjab and Sindh provinces, and the hazard in drinking water drawn from wells is well known. However, new research has recently come to light indicating that arsenic can be toxic over the longer term at levels much lower than previously considered. As a result there are new concerns regarding the total dietary exposure to this element, and this has raised the issue of the safety of some food crops which may be grown in affected areas when irrigated with ground water.
The Codex Alimentarius Commission Committee on Contaminants therefore met to discuss the setting of a maximum limit for arsenic in rice at its 8th Session held on 1 March-4 April 2014 in the Hague, The Netherlands. Pakistan exported about 3.4 million tonnes of rice in 2012, earning about US$1.8 billion. The establishment of international limits on arsenic in rice could potentially impact on this important export market for Pakistan. During the first 3 months of 2014, the TRTAII Project therefore undertook a series of actions to ensure an effective participation of Pakistan in the meeting.
In December 2013, the TRTAII launched a survey of arsenic levels in rice, undertaken by the Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR). This analysed the level of inorganic arsenic in 250 samples of basmati rice (the main export variety) taken from godowns, wholesalers and open markets in 10 districts within the Punjab Province. The study showed that the levels of arsenic in the samples fell within the range of zero (i.e. below the detection limit of 0.1 ppb) to 356 ppb (0.356 mg/kg). The study identified a number of locations which may be regarded as hotspots for arsenic contamination. However, this may vary between location and year, depending on the extent to which contaminated ground water is used for paddy irrigation.
Analytical data of rice samples was compared with the then WHO recommended permissible limits for arsenic in food (1.00 mg/kg equivalent to 1.00 ppm). The maximum levels of arsenic of all the samples were found in the range of 84.75 to 356.20 ppb (0.084 to 0.356 mg/kg). None of the sample was found exceeding the 1.00 mg/kg, the WHO recommended permissible limit for arsenic.
However, following the Codex Alimentarius meeting in The Hague this year, the Committee on setting Arsenic limits in polished rice revised this figure to 0.2 mg/kg. As a result of this revision, 12 samples were found exceeding the newly set Maximum Limit of 0.2 mg/Kg of arsenic (see figure below). This would still ensure that an estimated 95% of Pakistani rice samples would comply with the international standard.
TRTAII subsequently supported the attendance of two senior crop specialists from the Ministry of National Food Security and Research at the meeting of the Codex Committee, at which the arsenic issue was discussed. Dr. Mubarik Ahmed, DG Department of Plant Protection, and Mr. Itrat Rasool Malhi, Plant Specialist, NAPHIS were presented the results of the study to the meeting, which was attended by representatives of 30 countries. The delegation of China as Chair of the e–Working Group on arsenic in rice introduced the recommendations of the group. It was subsequently agreed the maximum limit of 0.2mg/kg of arsenic in polished rice should be established. The Committee agreed to forward the proposed maximum level for in-organic arsenic at 0.2mg/kg for formal adoption.
The Pakistani delegation however, did not favour a proposed limit of 0.3mg/kg of arsenic in unpolished rice, and also did not support a compromise. It was explained that Pakistan is the 4th largest producer of rice and a major exporter of this commodity in international trade. The e-WG had relied on data mainly from China and Japan, whereas data from South East Asian countries should be taken into account before any final decision is arrived at. The position was supported by other countries in the region. The Committee therefore deferred any decision on a maximum level of inorganic arsenic in unpolished rice for future elaboration.
Whilst the intervention has helped to ensure that Pakistani rice exports may continue and will be broadly in compliance with a future international standard for arsenic in rice, more work is required to identify the specific conditions under which contamination can occur, and to prepare appropriate advice for farmers and consumers. More information is also required on the level of arsenic in unpolished rice, so that the future limits for this product can take account of the Pakistani situation. TRTAII is therefore advising the Ministry of National Food Security on the design of a further study to generate this data.