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Another Reason Not to Eat Factory Chicken: Arsenic

RP Siegel | Wednesday April 11th, 2012 | 4 Comments

Earlier this week Nicholas Kristof wrote a piece in the NY Times about arsenic in chicken. He cited two studies that gave evidence of arsenic, caffeine, Tylenol, Benadryl and certain banned antibiotics in chicken.

The two studies, conducted by the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, and Arizona State University set out to look for the presence of antibiotics in chicken, but they found much more than that. “We were kind of floored,” said study co-author Keeve E. Nachman. “It’s unbelievable what we found.”

While they did not find anything that they felt was an “immediate health concern,” you have to wonder what the long term effects of ingesting these things might be.

You might think this is all a bunch of chicken feed, but really, how did these things get in there? Clearly, it was no accident. It turns out that arsenic has routinely been fed to livestock to reduce infections. It also tends to make the flesh a more appealing color and enhance growth. What with the use of arsenic as well as thousands of tons of antibiotics, enough to put all of us at risk from the development of resistant strains, it pretty clear that infections are a major problem on these overcrowded meat factories, which are now being regulated to avoid this problem in Europe.

As to the studies’ methodology, since farmers are not required to disclose what they feed their animals, and they have become so protective of their secrecy that they have successfully lobbied for a law that makes it illegal to photograph a factory farm operation in some states (not that they have anything to hide, mind you), the researchers had to resort to indirect tactics. They analyzed feathers which, like fingernails, accumulate chemicals found in the body. Specifically, they purchased and analyzed feather meal, a poultry byproduct that can be used as fertilizer or as livestock feed. That’s right, they feed the feathers back to the chickens. How else do you expect to get chicken for $2.99 a pound? It would cost a lot more if they gave them real food.

Tom Super, vice president of the National Chicken Council, tried to minimize the findings. “As the study’s authors point out, this study looked only at feathers, not meat. If consumers were to take away one message from the findings, it should be from the researchers themselves: ‘We haven’t found anything that is an immediate health concern.’”

Super went on to say that, “Chickens in the United States produced for meat are NOT given ‘arsenic’ as an additive in chicken feed, or any of the other compounds mentioned in these studies.”

However, he did point out that, “Some flocks used to be given feed that contained a product called Roxarsone, which included organic arsenic – not the inorganic form that is considered a poison.  This product, however, was removed from the market last year.”

According Tom Philpott, writing in Mother Jones, sales of Roxarsone which is also a growth enhancer, were voluntarily discontinued by its manufacturer, Pfizer, “after FDA tests found traces of the poison in chicken meat.”

Roxarson had been used for decades after WWII, with industry assurances that the organic arsenic was far less toxic than the inorganic form routinely used as poison. However, more recent findings discovered that the arsenic in Roxarsone would, under certain conditions, such as in the intestines of a chicken, shift to the far more toxic form, which, according to Food and Water Watch “is associated with increased risk for several kinds of cancer, including bladder, kidney, lung, liver and prostate.” It is also associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and neurological problems in children.

In response to these concerns, the use of arsenic in chicken feed was recently banned by the Maryland General Assembly.

Perhaps more disturbing than the arsenic was the discovery of illegal antibiotics in the samples. Specifically, fluoroquinolones, a class of broad spectrum antibiotic, including Cipro, that are used in people with infections that have become resistant to older antibiotics. These were found in 8 of the 12 samples collected in the multi-state study. The use of these antibiotics in poultry was banned in 2005 by the FDA in response to increasing signs of antibiotic resistance in Campylobacter bacteria. It will be difficult if not impossible to eliminate this dangerous microbe if these antibiotics are being administered to chickens on such a wide scale.

In addition to arsenic and Cipro, the samples were also found to contain caffeine, acetaminophen, the antihistamine diphenhydramine (the active ingredient in Benadryl) and the antidepressant fluoxetine (the active ingredient in Prozac).

Americans eat more meat than any other people and more chicken than any other meat. The average American consumes 100 pounds of chicken per year.

The researchers are recommending that the FDA monitor the feed that is given to livestock.

[Image credit: fiskadoro: Flickr Creative Commons]

RP Siegel, PE, is the President of Rain Mountain LLC. He is also the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water. Now available on Kindle.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.


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  • cetude

    This is NOT new.  Arsenic has been added to chicken feed for decades, and it slowly accumulates in the body.  Arsenic is also a NATURAL ORGANIC chemical found in nature so technically it can be added as part of “organic chicken” feed.  

  • RP Siegel

    You’re right cetude, it’s not new and the article says as much. “Roxarsone had been used for decades after WWII…” But it was clearly not well known, since the researchers themselves were surprised.  What is new is the discovery that organic arsenic apparently converts to the toxic inorganic form in the gut of a chicken.  Roxarsone was pulled off the market a year ago, so it is no longer commercially available. Whether the samples tested were over a year old, or some farmers continue to use it, is less clear, but one would expect its presence to fade, especially if the FDA starts monitoring feed as the study authors suggest.

  • http://www.tomhucker.com/ Tom Hucker

    Ron, thanks for covering this disturbing issue. You’re right that roxarsone was pulled from the market temporarily by Pfizer immediately following the FDA’s finding of arsenic in chicken livers in June 2011. But industry experts fully expect Pfizer to bring the drug back after the attention subsides.

    Just last week the MD General Assembly finally approved my bill to ban roxarsone and other arsenicals, after we found about 30,000 pounds of arsenic that enter the Maryland environment and food supply due to roxarsone. Pfizer hired outstanding and expensive lobbyists to fight the ban, so you might wonder why they would do so unless they planned to bring the drug back onto the market. We acted on roxarsone after the University of Maryland also published this study on the topic, which found that roxarsone converts to arsenic in chicken litter piles, that arsenic-laced runoff pollutes the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, and that when it’s not raining, arsenic binds t to our agricultural soil and builds up there:  http://agroecol.umd.edu/Arsenic%20Report.cfm

    The Washington Post also has a good piece here: http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/maryland-set-to-become-first-state-to-ban-arsenic-in-chicken-feed/2012/04/09/gIQAyyU16S_story.html

    Maryland State Delegate Tom Hucker

  • Dg

    Just a thought you might want to match the picture up with your article. You have pictured a White Leghorn, a bird strictly used for egg production. The industry standard for meat chickens is the Cornish Cross.