Monday, February 04, 2008

Playing Chicken with Arsenic

I've known that commercial chicken is given feed that contains arsenic for some time. What I didn't know was the extent of the issue and how many other food items are impacted by this practice.

64 Years of Feeding Poison to Chickens
The arsenic-based compound Roxarsone was created in 1944 and allowed to be fed to factory-farmed chicken. The compound encouraged weight gain, killed stomach parasites, and increased the size of the chicken's breast as well as "improved" the meat color. No tests were done on the safety or impacts of this practice for forty years after chickens were first fed the compound. After the European Union performed the first safety tests in the 1980s, use of the feed additive was immediately banned in Europe.

Recent Studies Prove Poultry Industry Wrong
The poultry industry's main justification for continued use of arsenic is that the chemical does not remain in the chicken's body, and thus, presents no hazard. In 2004, studies by The Food Safety and Inspection Service did find arsenic in live chickens. Tests done by the Institute of Agriculture and Trade Policy found arsenic in chicken meat purchased at the grocery store. The levels found ranged from 1.6 parts per billion to 222 ppb. To give this value some perspective, just 10 ppb of arsenic in tap water raises the percentage of cancer found in a population by one in 2000. The levels found in chicken far exceed World Health Organization recommendations.

Second, the poultry industry insists that the arsenic used is the less harmful organic arsenic. However, organic arsenic easily turns to inorganic in the presence of bacteria. Studies have shown that the organic arsenic in roxarsone becomes inorganic in as little as 10 days.

One bright note in the issue is that Tyson stopped using arsenic in its chicken feeds in March of 2004. They stopped the practice, not because of any concern for safety, they said, but because of public outcry. Naturally, admitting any fault would open the door to lawsuits. Regardless of the reason, it would be great if the rest of the poultry industry would follow suit. Don't hold your breath.

"There's never been any showings of human health risks from the addition of small amounts of roxarsone to the feed," Richard Lobb, a spokesman for The National Chicken Council, a Washington, D.C.-based trade organization for the industry, said in the Post-Gazette article regarding the research on arsenic.

Which seems to be the industry modus operendi; until you prove feeding poison to food animals actually kills people who consume the meat, it's just fine to keep doing it.

And, Speaking of Chickenshit
Much of the arsenic fed to chickens is excreted. Chicken manure is commonly used to create fertilizer that, where used, the arsenic remaining can seep into ground water. USDA tests have found arsenic in the soil, streams, and even tap water surrounding areas where these fertilizers are used. The same arsenic-laden poultry waste is also used in feed for cattle and pigs.

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