Monday, November 26, 2007

Is Arsenic-Laced Chicken on Your Menu Tonight?

You don't have to be a rocket scientist to be aware that arsenic is highly poisonous to humans. So it seemed strange to learn that as of 2002, approximately 70% of the chicken we bought in this country was raised on feed treated with an arsenic-based additive called roxarsone. Back in the 1950s, when it was first used to kill parasites, promote growth and improve pigmentation in chicken, roxarsone was considered benign -- at least in its original organic form. The truth is, by any name or form, arsenic compounds are still worrisome -- even the organic forms are transformed, in soils or in the human body, to cancer-causing inorganic arsenic. Given the new science, no arsenic should be considered safe -- especially that given needlessly to chickens.

To learn more about the issues involved with arsenic in chicken, I spoke with David Wallinga, MD, MPA, Director of the Food and Health Program at the non-profit Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. He told me that in response to rising health concerns, major companies such as Tyson (the nation's largest poultry producer) have already or are now voluntarily phasing out use of roxarsone in feed. Unfortunately, Dr. Wallinga also told me this remains a case of "buyer beware." There is no law against using arsenic-based additives and no mechanism in place to detect their presence in the roast chicken you place on the family dinner table or the nuggets you grab for lunch at the local fast food restaurant. We talked more about the hazards of arsenic exposure, and how you can best safeguard yourself and your family.


It's time to leave the 1950s behind and apply 21st-century science to the issue of arsenic in the food we eat, says Dr. Wallinga. We now know that the so-called "harmless" original organic form of roxarsone is rapidly converted into inorganic arsenic by bacteria found in soils, in animals and humans, making it toxic. We also know that even low-level exposure to inorganic arsenic can result in partial paralysis and diabetes. Long-term exposure can cause bladder, lung, skin, kidney and colon cancer, as well as neurological, endocrine and immune system disturbances. Over time, many of these compounds can be lethal.

Arsenic compounds in chicken feed contribute to arsenic exposure in humans in three ways:

  • Eating meat from chickens that have been fed arsenic-containing feed.
  • Chicken excretions that contaminate land and groundwater.
  • Chicken litter that is made into fertilizer for lawns and gardens.


Growing awareness of the health risks associated with arsenic may eventually bring about stricter government regulation of arsenic-based additives in feed, and Dr. Wallinga believes that this is the best path to follow. He hopes the law will change, making it illegal to use arsenic-based additives in animal feed while putting in place a system to monitor and enforce this policy. He adds that arsenic-based additives are not only hazardous to your health, but also patently unnecessary. They have never been used in chicken feed in Europe, for example, and Europeans eat lots of chicken. So why take a chance with them in this country?

In the meantime, you can take charge on a personal level. Any certified organic chicken is by law arsenic-free. You can also check with the supplier of your favorite brand of chicken as to whether or not it uses roxarsone. As I mentioned earlier, a growing number of food producers are voluntarily refraining from its use, and even fast food giant McDonald's has gotten on board by requesting that its suppliers no longer use arsenic compounds -- although it is unclear how aggressively they follow up. Independent testing showed that there was still arsenic in McDonald's chicken in 2006, after the company announced its new policy, underlining the need for stricter government regulation and enforcement.


David Wallinga, MD, MPA, Director, Food and Health Program, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, Minneapolis, Minnesota.