Commonly-Used Poultry Drug Increases Levels Of Toxic Arsenic In Chicken Meat

The meat from chickens raised with arsenic-based drugs contains considerably higher levels of inorganic arsenic, a very toxic carcinogen, new research from the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future at the Bloomberg School of Public Health has found.

Image Credit: Poultry via Flickr CC
Image Credit: Poultry via Flickr CC

While it may sound obvious that if chickens are administered drugs containing arsenic than their bodies will retain and contain some of that arsenic, it has actually long been argued that they would not… Especially with regards to the inorganic form of arsenic. And because of, no doubt, a variety of reasons there are now four arsenicals currently approved for use in poultry by the FDA…

With regards to the new research, this is the first study to “show concentrations of specific forms of arsenic (e.g., inorganic arsenic versus other forms) in retail chicken meat, and the first to compare those concentrations according to whether or not the poultry was raised with arsenical drugs. The findings provide evidence that arsenical use in chickens poses public health risks and indicate that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the agency responsible for regulating animal drugs, should ban arsenicals, experts say.”

The press release gets into the specifics of how the research was done:

Conventional, antibiotic-free, and USDA Organic chicken samples were purchased from 10 U.S. metropolitan areas between December 2010 and June 2011, when an arsenic-based drug then manufactured by Pfizer and known as roxarsone was readily available to poultry companies that wished to add it to their feed. In addition to inorganic arsenic, the researchers were able to identify residual roxarsone in the meat they studied; in the meat where roxarsone was detected, levels of inorganic arsenic were four times higher than the levels in USDA Organic chicken (in which roxarsone and other arsenicals are prohibited from use).

Arsenic-based drugs have been used in poultry production for decades. Arsenical drugs are approved to make poultry grow faster and improve the pigmentation of the meat. The drugs are also approved to treat and prevent parasites in poultry. In 2010, industry representatives estimated that 88 percent of the roughly nine billion chickens raised for human consumption in the U.S. received roxarsone. In July 2011, Pfizer voluntarily removed roxarsone from the U.S. market, but the company may sell the drug overseas and could resume marketing it in the U.S. at any time. Pfizer still domestically markets the arsenical drug nitarsone, which is chemically similar to roxarsone. Currently in the U.S., there is no federal law prohibiting the sale or use of arsenic-based drugs in poultry feed. (In January, Maryland became the first U.S. state to ban the use of most arsenicals in chicken feed.)

Lead author Keeve Nachman, PhD, stated, “The suspension of roxarsone sales is a good thing in the short term, but it isn’t a real solution. Hopefully this study will persuade FDA to ban the drug and permanently keep it off the market.”

A large body of previous research has found that chronic inorganic arsenic exposure definitely causes lung, bladder and skin cancers and is strongly associated with a large array of other conditions, including: heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cognitive deficits, developmental disorders, and adverse pregnancy outcomes. As per the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey data: at least 75% of all Americans eat chicken regularly.

Perhaps arsenicals are part of what’s contributing to the massive and rapid increase in the occurrence of dementia and other neurological diseases in Western countries during the last 40 years?

“The FDA has not established safety standards for inorganic arsenic in foods, although the agency did, for a brief time in 2011, suggest that concentrations should be well below 1 microgram per kilogram of meat. The levels of inorganic arsenic discovered in the meat where roxarsone was found were two and three times greater than that level.”

But with regards to the maximum level, do you really want ANY arsenic in you food?

Another interesting, and important, finding of the research “is that when roxarsone was present in raw meat, cooking decreased the levels of roxarsone and increased the levels of inorganic arsenic.” That’s certainly something to note….

The new study was just published in the scientific journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

About the Author

‘s background is predominantly in geopolitics and history, but he has an obsessive interest in pretty much everything. After an early life spent in the Imperial Free City of Dortmund, James followed the river Ruhr to Cofbuokheim, where he attended the University of Astnide. And where he also briefly considered entering the coal mining business. He currently writes for a living, on a broad variety of subjects, ranging from science, to politics, to military history, to renewable energy. You can follow his work on Google+.