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Paul Keleher
November 9th, 2010

World War II-era Drug Still Used in Chicken Feed Despite Health, Environment Risks

Food & Water Watch urges ban on arsenic in chicken feed; kicks off education campaign in Maryland

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Chicken has become ubiquitous in the American diet, with consumption tripling since the 1940s. Yet most people have no idea the meat they’re eating could be contaminated with one of the most well-known poisons in the world, according to a new report by consumer advocacy group Food & Water Watch.

Poison-Free Poultry: Why Arsenic Doesn’t Belong on Chicken Feed exposes the dangerous, widespread use of arsenic in the poultry industry and calls on Congress and the FDA to take action to update antiquated rules and protect consumers. In tandem, Food & Water Watch begins a campaign in Maryland to educate consumers and demand legislative action to end the use of arsenic in chicken production.

“The FDA approved this drug when FDR was president. Since then, the science has shown it’s a dangerous, unnecessary contaminant to our food supply,” said Wenonah Hauter, Executive Director of Food & Water Watch. “Europe does not use arsenic, and it’s time for the U.S. to step up and ban the drug as well.”

The U.S. poultry industry has used drugs containing arsenic, a known poison, to control the common intestinal disease, coccidiosis, since it was approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1944. Despite the average American’s annual chicken consumption tripling from less than 20 pounds in the 1940s to nearly 60 pounds in 2008, the FDA hasn’t revised its allowed levels for arsenic residues in poultry since 1951.

Additionally, new studies show that arsenic residues may be higher in chicken meat than previously known. USDA data suggests that the typical American is eating between 2.13 and 8.07 micrograms of total arsenic per day through consumption of chicken meat.

The report compiles extensive research showing that chronic arsenic exposure increases the risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, neurological deficits and other health problems.

Direct exposure to arsenic through chicken meat is not the only risk associated with the unchecked use of arsenic in livestock production. The arsenic that doesn’t stay behind in poultry makes its way into poultry waste – leading to contamination of soil, water and crops.

The report cites research that estimates that 2 million pounds of the arsenic-based drug roxarsone is fed to chickens each year, contaminating much of the estimated 26 to 51 billion pounds of poultry waste produced. Most of that waste, about 90 percent, is then spread across fields as fertilizer, which provides a direct pathway for arsenic to contaminate soil, water and crops. Furthermore, bacteria in chicken litter can convert the arsenic in the waste to more dangerous forms than those originally used in feed.

“The science shows the use of arsenic in chicken feed is dangerous and that you can raise chickens without it, “ said Hauter. “The FDA needs to stand up to the big chicken companies and make public health a priority.”

The report outlines the shared responsibility by the FDA, USDA and EPA for fixing a fragmented, antiquated system to regulate arsenic. Two pieces of legislation are currently under consideration: Representative Steve Israel (D-NY) introduced the “Poison-Free Poultry Act” in Congress in 2009 and in 2010, a bill to prohibit the use of arsenic in animal feed was introduced in the Maryland State Legislature.

The report highlights the heightened potential for exposure to arsenic found on the Delmarva Peninsula, which includes Delaware and the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Virginia.

The report concludes with recommendations for the FDA, USDA and EPA to mitigate the damage already caused by arsenic use in livestock feed and calls for a ban on future use of arsenic for livestock production.

For more information on the Maryland campaign, view the press release here.

The full report can be downloaded here.

Contact: Anna Ghosh, Food & Water Watch: 415-293-9905, aghosh(at)fwwatch(dot)org.

Food & Water Watch works to ensure the food, water and fish we consume is safe, accessible and sustainable. So we can all enjoy and trust in what we eat and drink, we help people take charge of where their food comes from, keep clean, affordable, public tap water flowing freely to our homes, protect the environmental quality of oceans, force government to do its job protecting citizens, and educate about the importance of keeping shared resources under public control.