FDA Finally Bans Most Arsenic in Chicken Feed -- Oh, By the Way, There's Arsenic in Your Chicken

Photo by <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/qmnonic/">Matt MacGillivray</a>/Flickr/<a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/">Creative Commons License</a>

Nearly four years — yes, four years — after the Center for Food Safety filed a petition (PDF) with the FDA calling for the withdrawal of arsenic-laced feed given to chickens, turkeys, and pigs, the FDA has finally responded. Actually, it responded to the lawsuit that the CFS subsequently filed, demanding that the agency respond to the citizen petition.

Better late than never, right? But the response was bittersweet. The FDA only agreed to withdraw three of the four arsenicals on the market: roxarsone, carbarsone, and arsanilic acid. (Ironically, it banned these drugs after the companies that make them, Zoetis and Fleming Laboratories, decided to voluntarily withdraw them from FDA approval last month.) The fourth drug, nitarsone, is still allowed in the feed supply. As for what makes nitarsone "safer" than the other arsenicals being banned, that part is still unclear.

Arsenic-containing compounds were first approved for commercial use in medicated animal feed in the 1940s. Their purpose was to promote faster growth in poultry and increased feed efficiency ... essentially, fatter chickens that don't eat as much. If animal feed produced by the pharmaceutical industry doesn't already make you shudder, ponder this: A 2006 report by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy found that over 70% of the 8.7 billion American broiler chickens produced each year have been fed arsenic, and some of that arsenic stays in the chicken meat.

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The poultry industry has claimed that the arsenic fed to their birds has no adverse health effects on the consumer. This is because the kind of arsenic used in feed additives is "organic" arsenic, which is arguably less toxic than "inorganic" arsenic, a known carcinogen. But even the FDA acknowledges (PDF) that recent studies have found that organic arsenic has the ability to convert to inorganic arsenic in animal tissue -- the animal tissue that you eat.

While poultry companies claim the amount of arsenic detected in chicken meat is too low to be of any concern, consider that the easier availability and lower cost of modern poultry production means the average American now eats a lot more chicken than ever before. From 1965 to 2013, consumption of chicken jumped from 33.7 pounds to 83.1 pounds per person per year: a 250% increase. And that raises the question: Just how much arsenic in our systems is too much? And what effect does it have on children versus adults?

The FDA claims it is continuing to evaluate nitarsone, the last remaining arsenical making its rounds in the poultry industry, and will make a final decision on whether or not to pull it from the food supply in 2014.

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