* Group tests more than 60 popular rice products
* Finds nearly all contained some level of inorganic arsenic
* Recommends consumers limit weekly intake of such products
* Food industry groups argue against singling out one source of arsenic
By Lisa Baertlein
LOS ANGELES, Sept 19 (Reuters) - Consumer Reports is urging U.S. limits for arsenic in rice after tests of more than 60 popular products -- from Kellogg's Rice Krispies cereal to Gerber infant cereal -- showed that most contained some level of inorganic arsenic, a known human carcinogen.
The watchdog group said that some varieties of brown rice -- including brands sold by Whole Foods Markets Inc and Wal-Mart Stores Inc -- contained particularly significant levels of inorganic arsenic.
It recommended ways for children and adults to limit their intake of rice products each week and said U.S. regulators should ban arsenic-containing drugs and pesticides used in crop and animal production.
"The goal of our report is to inform - not alarm - consumers about the importance of reducing arsenic exposure," said Urvashi Rangan, director of safety and sustainability at Consumer Reports.
"The silver lining in all of this is that it is possible to get a better handle on this" through improved farming and production practices, Rangan said.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration said on Wednesday that it plans to collect data on 1,200 food samples by the end of the year and make its own recommendation on arsenic intake.
The agency said its own preliminary data on arsenic in rice products is consistent with the Consumer Reports investigation. It found average levels of inorganic arsenic for the various rice and rice products of 3.5 to 6.7 micrograms of inorganic arsenic per serving in about 200 samples. Consumer Reports notes that the most stringent U.S. state limit on inorganic arsenic in drinking water sets a safety limit of 5 micrograms in a single liter.
"Our advice right now is that consumers should continue to eat a balanced diet that includes a wide variety of grains - not only for good nutrition but also to minimize any potential consequences from consuming any one particular food," FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg said in a statement.
Earlier this year, Consumer Reports called for limits on arsenic in apple and grape juices after similar testing found "worrisome" levels in those childhood staples.
Food manufacturers and industry groups said singling out rice products for arsenic levels was alarmist.
"Recent media stories based on studies about high levels of arsenic in rice are misleading the public about this issue, given that arsenic is everywhere and present in air, soil, water, and foods, including fruits and vegetables," the USA Rice Federation said on its website.
A spokeswoman for General Mills, whose Rice Chex cereal was included in the Consumer Reports study, said the company was confident there should be no concern for consumers eating their product. Officials at other food manufacturers and retailers, including Kellogg Co, Nestle's Gerber unit and PepsiCo Inc's Quaker Oats were not immediately available for comment.
Food is a major source of arsenic in the American diet. It can be found in fruits, vegetables, rice and seafood - all of which are considered healthy.
Inorganic arsenic is deadly at high doses. It is a known carcinogen that has been linked to a variety of cancers, including skin, lung and bladder, as well as heart disease and other illnesses.
Organic arsenic is believed to be far less harmful, but two organic forms measured - called DMA and MMA - are classified as possible carcinogens, Consumer Reports said.
The United States has established federal limits for arsenic in drinking water at 10 parts per billion (ppb). It is monitoring arsenic levels in some foods but has not set limits for arsenic in most foods.
Consumer Reports' rice tests included multiple samples of more than 60 products - including white and brown rice, infant rice cereals, rice crackers, rice pasta and rice drinks. The group said it found varying but measurable amounts of total arsenic - both inorganic and organic forms in samples of almost every product tested.
Notably, testers found that one-fourth of a cup of uncooked rice from samples containing the highest inorganic arsenic levels would approach the amount of inorganic arsenic an adult would get from drinking one liter of water at the federal government's maximum limit of 10 parts per billion.
They also found that brown rice had higher levels of arsenic. That's because arsenic is concentrated in its healthy outer layers, which are removed to make white rice.
Products that raise particular concern for children - who are still developing and have significantly lower body weights than adults - include infant rice cereal, ready-to-eat cold breakfast cereals and rice milk, they said.
The scientists advised limiting servings of those products. In particular, they recommended not exceeding one serving of infant rice cereal per day and excluding rice milk from the daily diets of children under the age of 5.
As replacements, they suggested other healthy whole grains such as wheat, corn and oats, which have lower arsenic levels.
Nutritionist Julie Jones, speaking on a call hosted by the food industry-funded International Food Information Council Foundation on Tuesday, called the concern about arsenic in the U.S. food supply "misplaced" and said consumers should be more concerned about eating a healthy diet.
Jones added that certain elements of a good diet such as fiber can help reduce the harmful effects of arsenic.
Michael Harbut, a researcher and physician who treats people with arsenic poisoning, said the scientific data does not support such claims.
"There is no such thing as a safe level of arsenic," said Harbut, who leads the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute's Environmental Cancer Program at Wayne State University in Detroit.