Tufts University researchers in Boston recently swapped the term "genetically modified" (GM) for "nutritionally enhanced" so they could proceed with a study testing GM rice on six to eight-year olds.
Greenpeace called the move a "dangerous genetic experiment" and said it had previously exposed illegal cases of GM rice in China.
But now biotech companies are highlighting recent reports which suggest that imported rice contains high levels of lead.
The research, which found some of the highest lead levels in baby food, was among almost 12,000 reports scheduled for the 245th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society.
Tsanangurayi Tongesayi, Ph.D., who headed the analysis of rice imported from Asia, Europe and South America, pointed out that imports account for only 7 percent of the rice consumed in the United States. With vast rice fields in Louisiana, California, Texas, Arkansas and Mississippi, the U.S. is a major producer and exporter of the grain. However, imports of rice and rice flour are increasing -- by more than 200 percent since 1999 -- and rice is the staple food for 3 billion people worldwide, he added.
"Such findings present a situation that is particularly worrisome given that infants and children are especially vulnerable to the effects of lead poisoning," Tongesayi said. "For infants and children, the daily exposure levels from eating the rice products analyzed in this study would be 30-60 times higher than the FDA's provisional total tolerable intake (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."
The research was part of a symposium titled "Food and Its Environment: What Is In What We Eat?"
Tongesayi's team, which is with Monmouth University in N.J., found that levels of lead in rice imported into the United States ranged from 6 to 12 milligrams/kilogram. From those numbers, they calculated the daily exposure levels for various populations and then made comparisons with the FDA's 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, Tongesayi said that rice from other nations has made its way into a wide variety of grocery stores, large supermarket chains and restaurants, as well as ethnic specialty markets and restaurants.
China, a Major Player in GM Rice
China leads the pack in rice breeding research, where hopes are high for new, insect resistant cultivars. China has approved its first strain of genetically modified rice for commercial production, potentially easing the way for other major producers to adopt the controversial technology.
The approval of the locally-developed rice, as well as China's first GMO corn, shifts the global balance of power in food trade and could prompt other countries to follow suit, experts said.
It will also enable China, the world's top producer and consumer of rice, to grow more GMO rice amid shrinking land and water resources.
The Chinese Ministry of Agriculture's Biosafety Committee issued biosafety certificates to pest-resistant Bt rice with large-scale production to start in 2-3 years.
But Greenpeace called the move a "dangerous genetic experiment" and said it had previously exposed illegal cases of genetically engineered (GE) rice in China.
"If the Ministry of Agriculture cannot even control the illegal cultivation of GE rice, how can they manage the risks of large scale cultivation?" Lorena Luo, Greenpeace's food and agriculture campaigner in China, asked in an emailed statement.
Everything from developing allergen-free rice to preventing vitamin deficiencies is being touted as the primary objective for genetic engineering projects which focus their efforts on altering rice's nutritional value.
Rice with Human Genes
The first GM food crop containing human genes is also set to be approved for commercial production.
The laboratory-created rice produces some of the human proteins found in breast milk and saliva.
The rice is a major step in so-called Frankenstein Foods, the first mingling of human-origin genes and those from plants. But the U.S. Department of Agriculture has already signalled it plans to allow commercial cultivation.
The rice's producers, California-based Ventria Bioscience, have been given preliminary approval to grow it on more than 3,000 acres in Kansas. The company plans to harvest the proteins and use them in drinks, desserts, yogurts and muesli bars and many other processed foods which will not be labelled as containing genetically modified foods once they reach the markets.
The news provoked horror among GM critics and consumer groups on both sides of the Atlantic.
GeneWatch UK, which monitors new GM foods, described it as "very disturbing". Researcher Becky Price warned: "There are huge, huge health risks and people should rightly be concerned about this."
Friends of the Earth campaigner Clare Oxborrow said: "Using food crops and fields as glorified drug factories is a very worrying development.
"If these pharmaceutical crops end up on consumers' plates, the consequences for our health could be devastating.
"The biotech industry has already failed to prevent experimental GM rice contaminating the food chain.
"The Government must urge the U.S. to ban the production of drugs in food crops. It must also introduce tough measures to prevent illegal GM crops contaminating our food and ensure that biotech companies are liable for any damage their products cause."
In the U.S., the Union of Concerned Scientists, a policy advocacy group, warned: "It is unwise to produce drugs in plants outdoors.
"There would be little control over the doses people might get exposed to, and some might be allergic to the proteins."
The American Consumers Union and the Washingtonbased Centre for Food Safety also oppose Ventria's plans.
As well as the contamination fears there are serious ethical concerns about such a fundamental interference with the building blocks of life.
Yet there is no legal means for Britain and Europe to ban such products on ethical grounds.
Imports would have to be accepted once they had gone through a scientific safety assessment.
Until now, plants with human-origin genes have been restricted to small test plots.
Ventria originally planned to grow the rice in southern Missouri but the brewer Anheuser-Busch, a huge buyer of rice, threatened to boycott the state amid concern over contamination and consumer reaction.
Now the USDA, saying the rice poses "virtually no risk". has given preliminary approval for it to be grown in Kansas, which has no commercial rice farms.
Ventria will also use dedicated equipment, storage and processing facilities supposed to prevent seeds from mixing with other crops.
April McCarthy is a community journalist playing an active role reporting and analyzing world events to advance our health and eco-friendly initiatives.
The rice could also be a huge money-spinner in the Western world, with parents being told it will help their children get over unpleasant stomach bugs more quickly.
"It's the same tune over and over from the GM folks. They say it helps when in actuality it only destroys the natural balance of nature, the environment and human health, period!" said GM critic Gustavo Miller about Ventria's initiatives.