If You Eat Chicken, Chances Are You're Eating Arsenic?
More than 80% of chicken farms in the western world deliberately add a common cancer-causing agent to chicken feed. The worst part is that it's government approved.
In the last few decades, poultry has become one of the most contaminated sources of meat available to humans. Chickens are exposed to infections from improper handling, air and soil pollution, environmental toxins, preservatives, metals and many other chemicals infused in all the vaccinations they receive.
Not enough toxins for you? Well governments also approve arsenic-based additives which 80% of all chickens consume in their daily diet. Less than 20% of organic and natural chicken farms (as well conventional sources who have converted) now refuse to use the additive, but chances are, if you eat chicken from a conventional source, you are eating arsenic.
Many scientists say the practice is completely unnecessary. The chicken industry's largest trade group says that arsenic levels in its birds are safe. "We are not aware of any study that shows implications of any possibility of harm to human health as the result of the use of these products at the levels directed," said Richard Lobb, a spokesman for the National Chicken Council.
Soils are contaminated with arsenical pesticides from chicken manure; chicken litter containing arsenic is fed to other animals; and until 2003, arsenic was used in pressure-treated wood for decks and playground equipment.
Arsenic levels in young chickens, or "broilers," may be three to four times greater than in other poultry and meat, as reported in the January issue of Environmental Health Perspectives.
Arsenic is a naturally occurring element found in food, drinking water and the environment. But exposure to high levels of the inorganic form, such as that found in wood preservatives, insecticides and weed killers, can be deadly.
Studies have linked long-term arsenic exposure in drinking water to cancer of the bladder, lungs, skin, kidney, nasal passages, liver and prostate, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It is also associated with cardiovascular, pulmonary, immunologic, neurologic and endocrine problems.
A 2004 Department of Agriculture study on arsenic concluded that "the higher than previously recognized concentrations of arsenic in chicken combined with increasing levels of chicken consumption may indicate a need to review assumptions regarding overall ingested arsenic intake."
"When this source of arsenic is added to others, the exposure is cumulative, and people could be in trouble," said Dr. Ted Schettler, a physician and the science director at the Science & Environmental Health Network, founded by a consortium of environmental groups.
Those at greatest risk from arsenic are small children and people who consume chicken at a higher rate than what is considered average: two ounces per day for a 154-pound person. The good news for consumers is that arsenic-free chicken is more readily available than it has been in the past, as more processors eliminate its use.
Roxarsone, the most common arsenic-based additive used in chicken feed, is used to promote growth, kill parasites and improve pigmentation of chicken meat. In its original form, roxarsone is relatively benign. But under certain anaerobic conditions, within live chickens and on farm land, the compound is converted into more toxic forms of inorganic arsenic.
Complicating the issue is the fact that no one knows the exact amount of arsenic found in chicken meat or ingested by consumers who frequently eat chicken. "Neither the Food and Drug Administration nor the Department of Agriculture has actually measured the level of arsenic in the poultry meat that most people consume," said an article in the April 9, 2007 issue of Chemical & Engineering News.
Tyson Foods, the nation's largest chicken producer, has stopped using arsenic in its chicken feed. In addition, Bell & Evans and Eberly chickens are arsenic-free. There is a growing market in organic chicken and birds labeled "antibiotic-free": neither contains arsenic.
Toxicologist Paul Manley says the fact that Tyson Foods stopped using arsenic is encouraging, but there are so many residual toxins in chickens that it's only a very small step in making chickens less toxic for human consumption. "Reducing arsenic in chickens is only one small factor in responsible chicken farming. The heavy metals from contaminated soils and inoculations alone make still make chicken the most toxic meat on the market," he said.
Researchers estimate that between 11 and 12 metric tons of arsenic are applied to agricultural land there every year via poultry waste. Groundwater tests on both sides of the Chesapeake Bay's Coastal Plains found arsenic in some household wells reaching up to 13 times the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) tolerance limit.
Then there's the question of arsenic traces in industrial chicken meat. In 2006, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) tested chicken samples from supermarkets and fast-food joints -- and found that 55 percent contained detectable arsenic. Citing the EPA, IATP reckons that 55 percent of arsenic found in poultry meat is inorganic, i.e., toxic. And here's another way arsenic from poultry feed gets into the food supply: the jaw-dropping, mind-boggling practice of feeding chicken feces to cows.
So how did the practice of dosing poultry with arsenic come to pass -- and what are the regulatory agencies doing about it? Food and Water Watch's Patty Lovera explains that the practice got the green light during the FDR administration, when the science on arsenic was much less advanced. According to Lovera, the government hasn't revised its standards for arsenic levels in poultry, "even as chicken consumption has increased dramatically." As for testing, well, it's so lax as to be functionally nonexistent:
"The U.S. Department of Agriculture's program for testing broiler chickens for arsenic residues conducts startlingly few tests. Between 2000 and 2008, the USDA tested only 1 out of every 12 million domestically produced chickens (or .00008 percent). In 2005 and 2008, the department conducted no tests for arsenic residues in domestically produced broilers."
Still want to eat chicken?
Marco Torresis a research specialist, writer and consumer advocate for healthy lifestyles. He holds degrees in Public Health and Environmental Science and is a professional speaker on topics such as disease prevention, environmental toxins and health policy.