Arsenic, Chicken and Old Regulatory Standards

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REUTERS/Srdjan Zivulovic

Now, before, I get started on this post, I want everyone to take a deep breath. O.K.? So it turns out that a common drug given to chickens — 3-Nitro, also known as Roxarsone — contains arsenic. You know, arsenic, that popular poison often found with old lace.

That sounds worrying. But it’s not exactly news that chickens have been fed with a drug containing arsenic. Roxarsone has been used in the poultry industry since the 1940s to help chickens gain weight, stay yellow and keep them safe from parasitic disease. Roxarsone contains very small amounts of organic arsenic — but far too little, scientists believed, to threaten chicken eaters. At least, no more danger than that posed by KFC’s 1,228-calorie Double Down chicken sandwich.

But maybe your initial reaction was right — it turns out dosing broiler chickens with a drug containing even trace amounts of organic arsenic might not be the smartest idea in the world. Yesterday the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that Alpharma, a subsidiary of the drug company Pfizer, would be voluntarily suspending sales of Roxarsone because of health concerns. That decision follows a recent FDA study that detected inorganic arsenic — a known human carcinogen, unlike organic arsenic — in higher levels in the livers of chickens treated with Roxarsone, which came as a bit of a surprise to scientists.

Despite the news and Pfizer’s decision, however, the FDA does not want you to be alarmed. Nor does it want you to cut back on the 60 or so pounds of chicken the average American consumes each year. From Michael Taylor, the FDA’s deputy commissioner for foods:

FDA detected increased levels of inorganic arsenic in the livers of chickens treated with 3-Nitro, raising concerns of a very low but completely avoidable exposure to a carcinogen. We are pleased to announce that the company is cooperating with us to protect the public health.

Speaking as a member of the public, I’m also pleased that the company is cooperating — especially since the government’s powers to compel business to act on food safety is still kind of wobbly. (The National Chicken Council, for its part, issued a statement assuring consumers that there was no need to change their poultry buying or eating habits.)

But it shouldn’t be that surprising that giving chickens a drug with arsenic might turn out to be a bad idea. There have been scientific studies out for some time indicating that chickens may be able to convert organic arsenic into the more dangerous, inorganic form. (Organic arsenic is found naturally in the soil and water.) The nation’s largest poultry producer, Tyson Foods, phased out the drug years ago, as did Perdue. Europe has already banned the drug for use in its poultry. It just took Americans a little while to get there.

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