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Home > News and media > Global news > FDA Finally Listened and Removed Arsenic from Chickens

FDA Finally Listened and Removed Arsenic from Chickens

  • by WMCO
  • 8 January 2016
  • français Version

The U.S. FDA has announced that Pfizer will stop the sale of the animal drug 3-Nitro. The drug is used in chicken feed, but an agency analysis detected inorganic arsenic in the livers of chickens treated with the drug.

3-Nitro is used to help control coccidiosis, a parasitic disease that affects the intestinal tracts of animals, and also so that the chickens will gain more weight.

arsenic on chicken feedsThe U.S. FDA has announced that Pfizer will stop the sale of the animal drug 3-Nitro. The drug is used in chicken feed, but an agency analysis detected inorganic arsenic in the livers of chickens treated with the drug.

3-Nitro is used to help control coccidiosis, a parasitic disease that affects the intestinal tracts of animals, and also so that the chickens will gain more weight.

The Wall Street Journal reports:

"The agency said it recently conducted a study of 100 broiler chickens that detected inorganic arsenic at higher levels in the livers of chickens treated with 3-Nitro compared with untreated chickens ... Pfizer said sale of 3-Nitro would be stopped by early July in order to allow animal producers to transition to other treatments."

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has finally announced a "voluntary suspension" of the arsenic-laced drug Roxarsone, which has been widely used on chicken CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operations) to control an intestinal parasite that allows the chickens to feed more productively and grow faster. It also makes chicken appear pinker (i.e. "fresher").

For some of you, this may be the first time you’re hearing about Roxarsone, but it has been used in chicken feed since the 1940s. More than 70 years later, the FDA conducted an analysis that found chickens treated with the drug do in fact have arsenic in their livers — and as a result manufacturer Pfizer will be stopping sale of the drug (brand name 3-Nitro) early this month.

Arsenic in Your Chicken?

One of the reasons I’ve long recommended avoiding conventionally raised chicken is because of the potential for it to contain arsenic. Some of the larger chicken producers, including Tyson and Perdue, phased the drug out several years back, but as of 2007, 70 percent of the 9 billion broiler chickens produced annually in the United States were still being fed Roxarsone.

Roxarsone was the first arsenic-based product approved for use in animal feed, and it has based its safety on the fact that it contains organic arsenic, which is less toxic than the other inorganic form, which is a known carcinogen. The problem is, scientific reports surfaced stating that the organic arsenic in Roxarsone could transform into inorganic arsenic, and this is what prompted the FDA to conduct its own studies.

Sure enough, upon comparing 100 chickens fed either the Roxarsone-containing feed or control feed, those fed the drug had higher levels of toxic inorganic arsenic in their livers. While FDA officials have stressed that the levels in chicken livers were too low to worry about, it should be noted that "due to technical difficulties in developing an analytical method for muscle tissue," chicken muscle meat — which is the part of the chicken most widely consumed — was not tested for the presence of inorganic arsenic.

The good news is that as a result of the finding, Roxarsone will be phased out of chicken feed starting this month. Please note that this suspension is only taking place in the United States; Pfizer will still be manufacturing Roxarsone and shipping it overseas. There is also no word on whether this will also impact other arsenic-based drugs that are approved for use in food-producing animals, such as pigs.

What are the Health Risks of Inorganic Arsenic?

It defies common sense to intentionally lace animal feed with arsenic, given that it is a well-established toxin. Roxarsone billed itself as an "organic" form of arsenic, which means it contains both carbon and arsenic, rendering it less toxic. But the "organic" arsenic was in fact converting into inorganic arsenic at some point.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA):

"Chronic inorganic arsenic exposure is known to be associated with adverse health effects on several systems of the body, but is most known for causing specific types of skin lesions (sores, hyperpigmentation, and other lesions) and increased risks of cancer of the lung and skin."

Other impacts of chronic arsenic exposure include, according to the EPA:

Kidney damage and failure Anemia Low blood pressure
Shock Headaches Weakness
Delirium Increased risk of diabetes Adverse liver and respiratory effects, including irritation of mucous membranes
During development, increased incidence of preterm delivery, miscarriage, stillbirths, low birth weight, and infant mortality During childhood, decreased performance in tests of intelligence and long-term memory Skin lesions

Again, the FDA continues to stress that eating chicken fed Roxarsone "does not pose a health risk" due to the very low levels of inorganic arsenic detected.

And unfortunately, the exposure comes not only from eating the contaminated meat, but also from the environment, where arsenic-laced chicken litter is used as fertilizer. According to the U.S. EPA’s National Risk Management Research Laboratory:

"Although some producers have discontinued use of roxarsone since 2004, vast quantities of poultry litter contaminated with ROX have been and continue to be applied to agricultural fields. ROX can be transformed to produce the more toxic and more mobile inorganic arsenic species arsenic(III) and arsenic(V), which can then undergo biomethylation to produce even more toxic arsenic species.

Long-term exposure to inorganic arsenic can cause bladder, lung, skin, kidney, and colon cancer, as well as deleterious immunological, neurological, and endocrine effects. Low-level exposure can lead to partial paralysis and diabetes."

Arsenic from CAFOs can also contaminate drinking water. Although arsenic is a natural component in groundwater, the levels found in some areas are much higher than allowed by the EPA, and this is directly related to runoff from CAFOs. According to one source, the levels found in private wells near a Chesapeake Bay chicken farming operations are up to 13 times the legal limit!

If you think you may have been exposed to long-term arsenic poisoning, you should consult a health care professional. Arsenic can be measured in blood, urine, hair, or nails. Of these, a urine test is the simplest way to tell if you are being exposed to dangerous levels of arsenic.

If you receive your drinking water from a private well, I encourage you to test for arsenic. Kits can be ordered for this purpose. Even urban dwellers who receive treated water from their city are not completely safe from arsenic, as long-term consumption of legal allowable limits is no guarantee against accumulated arsenic poisoning. In either case, whether you receive city water or well water, I suggest you invest in a whole house filtration system or several point of use water filters.

Arsenic is Not the Only Reason to Avoid Conventional Chicken

Now that arsenic-laced feed will hopefully become a thing of the past for chicken CAFOs, can you assume that the chicken sold at your supermarket is a healthy choice?

Not exactly.

One of the major problems with non-organic animal meat is that it tends to bioaccumulate toxins to a higher degree than vegetables, and conventional livestock feed is frequently laced with a variety of pesticides found in the sources of animal feed. The animals are also routinely dosed with high levels of antibiotics that get passed on to you through the food chain.

A new report from the University of Florida’s Emerging Pathogens Institute has also revealed that poultry was found to cause more food-borne disease than any other food, amounting to $2.4 billion in costs of illness. The primary bacteria to blame were Campylobacter, followed by Salmonella.

Consumer Reports tests indicated that 83 percent of fresh, whole broiler chickens bought at supermarkets nationwide harbor campylobacter or salmonella.

Chickens and turkeys normally harbor Campylobacter in their digestive tracts without becoming ill. Antibiotics routinely given to the birds in CAFOs don’t completely eliminate Campylobacter from the birds’ intestinal tracts, so the surviving bacteria are the tougher ones that have resisted being killed off by the antibiotics. Those bacteria proliferate in the birds and end up being passed on to you—along with their antibiotic-resistance.

Campylobacter bacteria are found on chicken carcasses in slaughterhouses and in commercial poultry products—including on the outside of poultry packaging—where they can easily infect you, your children, or your pets.

Prior studies have shown that organic chickens are far less contaminated with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. In fact, conventional chicken products were found to be up to 460 times more likely to contain antibiotic-resistant strains than antibiotic-free chicken products. Locally grown chickens raised in a healthy way have nowhere near these infection rates.

How to Find Toxin-Free Chicken

Healthy, humanely raised meat — free from veterinary drugs and chemicals — is out there, and you can find it by purchasing your meat and poultry directly from a trusted farmer whose farming practices you’re familiar with. Supporting local farmers and ranchers can go a long way toward improving the entire food system, and more importantly, your personal health.

I realize that not everyone has access to small farmers, but food from local sources is increasing in popularity and is becoming much easier to come by. For an excellent list of sustainable agricultural groups in your area, please see Promoting Sustainable Agriculture — this page is filled with resources for high-quality poultry and other meats in your area.

If you’re shopping at the supermarket, I personally recommend ONLY organic pasture-raised chickens, since not only are these products safer, but they have a superior nutritional profile as well. So when buying poultry or other meat at your grocery store, look for the USDA Organic seal.


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