FDA Acts on Arsenic in Animal Feed
By Sarah Borron
Good news! After years of efforts by advocacy groups, the FDA announced it is withdrawing approval of nearly all uses of arsenic in animal feeds.
For those thinking, “they feed animals arsenic?”, here’s some background. Arsenic has been used primarily in chicken and turkey feed, and to a lesser extent in feed for hogs, for decades. Arsenic has been used as a preventative drug for a poultry disease called coccidiosis but also as a growth-promoting agent that supposedly made the flesh of chickens and turkeys look pinker. Despite findings that animals fed arsenic carried more arsenic in their flesh and organs, FDA allowed the drugs to remain on the market for decades, hiding behind the claim that the amount of arsenic in meat was still far below dangerous levels.
Consumer advocacy and public health groups fought this use of arsenic for years due to safety concerns. While arsenic levels in meat are too low to cause an immediate toxic response, any exposure to arsenic adds to a person’s overall risk of getting cancer over a lifetime. And the arsenic that is not absorbed into the animal flesh is passed out of the animal in its waste, which ends up in the environment when it is used as fertilizer or runs off into water.
There have been important milestones on the path to FDA’s announcement that show the role of using organizing, good science and legal strategy together to make change. In the summer of 2011, the pharmaceutical company Pfizer voluntarily suspended sales of roxarsone, the primary arsenical drug used in poultry, due to safety concerns. In the spring of 2012, the Maryland State Legislature passed a ban on most arsenic use in poultry feed after a campaign by Food & Water Watch and coalition partners such as Assateague Coastkeeper, the Choptank Riverkeeper and other groups from around the state. This May, the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (CLF) published a study that found clear evidence that using these drugs in chicken production increased levels of inorganic arsenic, a known carcinogen, in chicken breast meat. And just this spring, Food & Water Watch and CLF sued FDA for concealing records regarding the arsenic issue—and FDA’s announcement came under the threat of a lawsuit by nine advocacy organizations in response to a legal petition filed in 2009.