U.S. poultry farmers have used drugs containing arsenic, a known poison, to control the common disease coccidiosis for decades. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the arsenic-based drug roxarsone as a feed additive in 1944. The chicken industry discovered that roxarsone promoted growth, increased feed efficiency (pounds of chicken produced from each pound of feed), and improved flesh pigmentation as well. Between 1995 and 2000, 70 percent of broiler chicken producers used roxarsone feed additives.
While the chicken industry maintains that arsenical drugs are safe, arsenic poses problems to human health from exposure to chicken meat and waste. A study of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s limited data found arsenic levels in young chickens to be approximately three times higher than average levels in other meats. Most arsenical drugs fed to chickens are excreted in waste, which can rapidly decompose into more toxic forms. Typically used as fertilizer, the waste can contaminate soil, water and crops.
Chronic arsenic exposure increases the risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and other health problems.
The FDA, USDA and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) coordinate a fragmented system to regulate arsenic.
- The FDA set allowed levels for arsenic residues in poultry in 1951 and has not revised them since. Yet, the average American’s annual chicken consumption has tripled from less than 20 pounds in the 1940s to nearly 60 pounds in 2008.
- The EPA reduced the maximum contaminant levels for arsenic in drinking water from 50 parts per billion (ppb) to 10 ppb in 2001. The cancer risk at the new standard is still 50 times higher than the risk allowed for many other carcinogens.
- The USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) tests very few broiler chickens for arsenic residues. In 2005 and 2008, FSIS did not test any domestically produced chickens for arsenic residues. Just over half the chickens tested be- tween 2000 and 2008 contained detectable arsenic residues.
Two major chicken companies, Tyson Foods and Perdue Farms, have claimed to stop using arsenical feed additives, though some evidence raises questions about those claims. The European Union has set a ban on arsenicals in poultry feed and a zero-tolerance level for arsenic in chicken meat, which leaves little doubt that alternative methods are available. There are ongoing legislative efforts to ban arsenic use in U.S. chicken production.
It’s high time to re-evaluate the use of arsenic in U.S. poultry production. Food & Water Watch recommends:
- A Ban on Arsenical Feed Additives and Drugs: The FDA should prohibit the use of arsenic-based additives in animal feed.
- Research on Poultry Production: USDA research priorities should include means to improve chicken gut health through improved nutritional and flock management, including studying the effects of stocking density on disease prevalence.
- Mitigate Environmental Contamination: Ground and surface water monitoring in areas with concentrated poultry pro- duction should include testing for arsenic. Contaminated drinking water must be treated to protect public health.
- Growth promotion and improved pigmentation are not sufficient reasons to introduce carcinogens into the food supply and the environment. It is time for an end to the use of arsenic in U.S. poultry and livestock production.