It all seemed a like shameless ratings stunt, but the campaign by telegenic daytime TV host Dr. Oz to talk about arsenic levels in apple juice has been echoed by a new Consumer Reports investigation that contradicts the Food and Drug Administration.
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This September, we were as skeptical as anyone when Dr. Mehmet Oz alarmed his viewers that "some of the best known brands in America have arsenic in their apple juice ... a poisonous metal known to cause cancer and potential IQ problems." It was a dubious-sounding claim because a) his show's yelping audience members and ominous music can be distracting and b) the FDA had a very plausible refutation: The Dr. Oz Show's testing measured total arsenic levels and didn't differentiate between organic arsenic and inorganic arsenic, which is the bad cancer-causing kind found in pesticides. "We have advised you that the test for total arsenic DOES NOT distinguish inorganic arsenic from organic arsenic," said an agency letter to the show.
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But the new Consumer Reports investigation found that most of the arsenic that registered was inorganic and the total arsenic levels were higher than what the FDA allows in water. "The tests of 88 samples of apple juice and grape juice purchased in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut by Consumer Reports staffers found that 10 percent of those samples had total arsenic levels exceeding federal drinking-water standards of 10 parts per billion (ppb) and 25 percent had lead levels higher than the 5 ppb limit for bottled water set by the Food and Drug Administration." The publisher of the report called for the FDA to impose arsenic standards on juice in a similar way it does for water. "Consumers Union is urging the FDA to set a more protective standard of 3 ppb for total arsenic and 5 ppb for lead in juice."
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In a statement to The Atlantic Wire, FDA spokeswoman Stephanie Yao said the agency welcomes the Consumer Reports study but adds, "We continue to find the vast majority of apple juice tested to contain low levels of arsenic." Still, the agency was taken aback by some of the arsenic levels discovered in juice. " By the same token, a small percentage of samples contain elevated levels of arsenic. In response, FDA has expanded our surveillance activities."
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And that's not the only way the agency has responded. This month, the FDA sent a letter to the consumer advocacy groups Food & Water Watch and Empire State Consumer Project indicating that the FDA was now considering "setting guidance for the level of inorganic arsenic permissible in apple juice." If the FDA goes through with the decision, the watchdog groups say it would constitute a major victory for consumers.
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Does Dr. Oz deserve credit for the agency's decision to reevaluate its apple juice standards?
"Absolutely, " said Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food & Water Watch, in a conversation with The Atlantic Wire. "It shows the power of television to get the story out there."
Noting the agency's decision to consider new standards, Food & Water Watch's spokeswoman Anna Ghosh added that "it's much more than was being done before the Dr. Oz program aired in September giving this issue a huge amount of media exposure."
Typically, it would pain us to give credit to someone like Dr. Oz for scaring parents about arsenic in apple juice, which the FDA still says is completely safe. But throughout his campaign, Oz maintained that he was simply bringing awareness to the lack of FDA testing of arsenic and that he would even allow his own children to continue drinking apple juice. In walking the line between alarmism and prudence, he appears to have stuck the right balance, while humbling a federal agency at the same time. Oz did not respond to an interview request by the time of publication but his publicist says his show will be devoting tomorrow's episode to the new report.