The US Food and Drug Administration responded to concerns from consumer groups Friday by limiting the amount of arsenic in apple juice to the same level currently permitted in drinking water.
"Overall the supply of apple juice is very safe and does not represent a threat to public health," FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg said. "We decided to put forward this proposed action level to give guidance to industry and to assure ongoing safety and quality."
The FDA faced pressure for more than a year from groups worried about the contaminant’s effects on children. In particular, reports by Dr. Mehmet Oz of the "Dr. Oz Show" and Consumer Reports raised concerns with parents that the levels of arsenic could lead to deadly diseases later in life.
The FDA has tested arsenic in apple juice for at least 20 years and has long said the levels are not dangerous to consumers, in particular the small children who favor the fruit juice (second only to orange juice in popularity, according to industry groups).
But the agency issued a tougher stance with its announcement Friday. Under the new regulation, apple juice containing more than 10 parts per billion could be removed from the market and companies could face legal action. FDA officials stressed that the vast majority of juices on the market are already below the threshold and say they are taking a very cautious approach.
An FDA analysis of dozens of apple juice samples last year found that 95 percent were below the new level.
Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports, last year called for a limit as low as 3 parts per billion. While the FDA didn't go that far, the group still praised the agency for taking action.
"While we had proposed a lower limit, we think this is a perfectly good first step to bring apple juice in line with the current drinking water limits," said Urvashi Rangan, the group's director for consumer safety.
The FDA decision represents in entrance into some new territory: While the Environmental Protection Agency sets arsenic limits for drinking water, there have never been similar standards for most foods and beverages. The FDA is also considering new limits on arsenic in rice, which is thought to have higher levels than most foods because it is grown in water on the ground, optimal conditions for absorbing the contaminant.
Arsenic is found in the environment as a naturally occurring mineral and as a result of contamination from industrial activity and pesticides that used to be allowed in agriculture. When ingested in very high doses over a short period of time, the chemical can increase the risk for certain cancers, say medical experts.
Government officials and consumer advocates agree that drinking small amounts of apple juice isn't harmful. The concern involves the effects of drinking large amounts of juice over long periods of time.
The FDA will take comments on the draft regulation for 60 days before making it binding.
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.