The environmental advocacy organization Center for Food Safety (CFS) is celebrating a major coup this month. After nearly four years of petitioning the Food and Drug Administration to address arsenic levels in animal feed, the FDA announced September 30 that it would be withdrawing approval for most arsenic-containing drugs used in veterinary feed.
According to the CFS, the nonprofit organization first started questioning the use of arsenic in poultry feed seven years ago, when it suggested that the chemical element could pose a threat to consumer health.
In 2009, the CFS and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) petitioned the FDA to suspend the approval of all drugs containing inorganic arsenic, including those containing roxarsone, arsenilic acid, nitarsone and carbarsone. The petition also called for the FDA to open a hearing so that new evidence concerning the use of inorganic arsenic in animal feed could be submitted, and to withdraw the approval of all drugs using the substance in veterinary feed.
John Hopkins: Risk in using arsenic in animal feed
Earlier this month, the CFS, IATP and seven other organizations filed a suit against the FDA for not responding to the 2009 petition and allegedly withholding information requested through the federal Freedom of Information Act.
“The (FDA’s announcement confirms) what we’ve been saying for seven years, (that) the use of arsenic in animal feed is not necessary and poses needless risk to public health,” said IATP’s Vice President for Program Ben Lilliston.
Arsenic occurs naturally in the environment as a part of the earth’s crust. According to Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) however, inorganic compounds are produced when arsenic is combined with other elements, such as oxygen, chlorine or sulfur, and is now widely recognized as a carcinogen.
Studies by the John Hopkins Center for Livable Future and Bloomberg School of Public Health found that broiler chickens that were administered arsenic-based drugs in feed showed a higher level of arsenic in the meat.
According to a May 2013 press release issued by the Center for a Livable Future, the research findings “provide evidence that arsenical use in chickens poses public health risks and indicate that the Food and Drug Administration … the agency responsible for regulating animal drugs, should ban arsenicals.”
The FDA however has only agreed to ban roxarsone, arsenilic acid, and carbarsone, and interestingly, only because “the sponsors (of those drugs) have requested the FDA to withdrawal the (approval).” The agency denied the withdrawal of nitarsone, which it said it is still reviewing.
Consumer Reports: Arsenic in human food
The FDA’s unprecedented withdrawal of 98 of the 101 drugs on the market that contain arsenic is only one of several changes being called for concerning arsenic in food sources. In 2012, Consumer Reports (CR) published a finding indicating that arsenic is much more prevalent in human foods than first thought. The research organization found that rice – particularly brown rice – was found to have significantly high levels of arsenic, but so did juice, baby food and breakfast cereals.
According to the report, rice samples measured by CR showed as much as 186 parts per billion of inorganic arsenic. Elevated results were found both in organically grown and non-organically grown foods.
“No federal limit exists for arsenic in most foods,” CR wrote, “but the standard for drinking water is 10 parts per billion (ppb). The legal limit for arsenic in public water sources in the state of New Jersey is 5 ppb.”
Inorganic arsenic has been used as a medicinal treatment on poultry and swine for some years. The nitarsone arsenic compound is used to increase rapid weight in fowl, and has to date, been the only known treatment for blackhead, or histomoniasis in turkeys.
Several organizations, including Consumer Reports, are urging the federal government to set limits for arsenic in foods, as it already does for water.
Image of chickens courtesy of Roger Kidd
Image of naturally occurring arsenic courtesy of Aram Dulyan