Chicken Eat Arsenic, You Eat Chicken: How to Stop Big Ag's Poisoned Poultry

Poultry producers feed their birds arsenic to make chicken flesh a more appetizing shade of pink. Maryland lawmakers are fighting back.

Go ahead and pick up some poultry—but it's best if it’s from Maryland. The state recently became the first in the nation to pass a law banning farmers from using arsenic-based feed additives in raising their chickens. Beginning next year, the state’s poultry producers will no longer be free to feed their birds a steady dose of poison-laced drugs like roxarsone.

The legislation signed into law last week may not have garnered much attention outside of Maryland, but it’s a significant move forward for the country at large. Arsenic-based feed additives like roxarsone have historically been used liberally in America’s booming poultry industry, to the detriment of water, wildlife, and chicken-eaters everywhere.

Poultry producers feed their birds roxarsone to prevent intestinal problems and make chicken flesh a more appetizing shade of pink. While Big Poultry has claimed for years that the use of roxarsone and other arsenic-based feed additives has no impact on consumer health, evidence suggests that all that arsenic is unnecessarily risky for consumers. Last year, the FDA found increased levels of arsenic in the livers of supermarket chickens. The FDA asserts that the presence of arsenic in chicken poses no threat to human health, but even relatively low levels of arsenic elsewhere have been linked to cancers, developmental disorders, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and other maladies. Because roxarsone isn’t a necessity—it’s easy to raise healthy birds without feeding them poison—eliminating the use of roxarsone and similar drugs is an easy way to avoid exposure to arsenic.

When the FDA released its study last year, roxarsone’s maker, Pfizer, voluntarily pulled the drug from the market pending further research into its safety. Critics of Maryland’s new law argue that the legislation is unnecessary given Pfizer’s voluntary removal of roxarsone. But Pfizer still has another arsenic-based poultry drug on the market, histostat. While histostat isn’t nearly as popular among farmers as roxarsone, its potential impacts on human health, water, and wildlife are similarly problematic. And without legislation barring the use of arsenic-based feed additives, Pfizer can put roxarsone back on the market at any time, or concoct another poultry drug containing arsenic.

Arsenic-based poultry drugs take their toll on the environment, too. After chickens gobble up arsenic-laced feeds, much of that poison is excreted in the birds’ waste. Farmers typically take this manure and spread it all over their fields—and that’s when things get really scary. In its waste form, the arsenic tends to break down from an organic compound into its more toxic inorganic form. Once it rains, this poisonous, inorganic arsenic makes its way from crop fields and soil into nearby waterways. The presence of inorganic arsenic doesn’t only present risks for people who use and drink said water, but also could pose problems for aquatic plants and wildlife.

The problem of arsenic in waterways is especially evident in Maryland’s most beleaguered body of water, the Chesapeake Bay. About 1,700 poultry producers are located on the Delmarva Peninsula, a strip of land that juts into the bay. These farmers bang out about 11 million chickens every single week. All those birds produce tons of waste—as much as 39 million tons a year, in fact—and arsenic from said waste regularly washes into the already polluted Bay. A Food & Water Watch study found that wells located on both sides of the Chesapeake Bay contained arsenic levels up to 13 times higher than the Environmental Protection Agency’s tolerable limits. Maryland had the good sense to outlaw the use of arsenic-based feed additives in part to protect the ailing Chesapeake Bay, but similar scenarios are playing out in states across the country.

Maryland remains the only state to ban the use of arsenic-based feed additives. And arsenic is only one class of drugs in an industry that overuses countless pharmaceuticals. But the recent passage of the Maryland law is a good sign of things to come. When this same legislation came before Maryland lawmakers in the past, it quickly died thanks to pressure from Big Ag and the state’s numerous poultry producers. The fact that lawmakers finally stood up to protect consumers and the environment sends a powerful message to industrial agriculture. Let’s hope the other 49 states are listening.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user Martin Cathrae

via Real Time with Bill Maher / YouTube and The Late Late Show with James Corden / YouTube

A controversial editorial on America's obesity epidemic and healthcare by comedian Bill Maher on his HBO show "Real Time" inspired a thoughtful, and funny, response by James Cordon. It also made for a great debate about healthcare that Americans are avoiding.

At the end of the September 6th episode of "Real Time, " Maher turned to the camera for his usual editorial and discussed how obesity is a huge part of the healthcare debate that no one is having.

"At Next Thursday's debate, one of the candidates has to say, 'The problem with our healthcare system is Americans eat shit and too much of it.' All the candidates will mention their health plans but no one will bring up the key factor: the citizens don't lift a finger to help," Maher said sternly.

Keep Reading Show less

There is no shortage of proposals from the, um, what's the word for it… huge, group of Democratic presidential candidates this year. But one may stand out from the pack as being not just bold but also necessary; during a CNN town hall about climate change Andrew Yang proposed a "green amendment" to the constitution.

Keep Reading Show less
Me Too Kit

The creator of the Me Too kit — an at home rape kit that has yet to hit the market — has come under fire as sexual assault advocates argue the kit is dangerous and misleading for women.

The kit is marketed as "the first ever at home kit for commercial use," according to the company's website. "Your experience. Your kit. Your story. Your life. Your choice. Every survivor has a story, every survivor has a voice." Customers will soon be able order one of the DIY kits in order to collect evidence "within the confines of the survivor's chosen place of safety" after an assault.

"With MeToo Kit, we are able to collect DNA samples and other tissues, which upon testing can provide the necessary time-sensitive evidence required in a court of law to identify a sexual predator's involvement with sexual assault," according to the website.

Keep Reading Show less

Villagers rejoice as they receive the first vaccines ever delivered via drone in the Congo

The area's topography makes transporting medicines a treacherous task.

Photo by Henry Sempangi Senyule

When we discuss barriers to healthcare in the developed world, affordability is commonly the biggest concern. But for some in the developing world, physical distance and topography can be the difference between life and death.

Widjifake, a hard-to-reach village in northwestern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) with a population of 6,500, struggles with having consistent access to healthcare supplies due to the Congo River and its winding tributaries.

It can take up to three hours for vehicles carrying supplies to reach the village.

Keep Reading Show less
via Keith Boykin / Twitter

Fox News and President Trump seem like they may be headed for a breakup. "Fox is a lot different than it used to be," Trump told reporters in August after one of the network's polls found him trailing for Democrats in the 2020 election.

"There's something going on at Fox, I'll tell you right now. And I'm not happy with it," he continued.

Some Fox anchors have hit back at the president over his criticisms. "Well, first of all, Mr. President, we don't work for you," Neil Cavuto said on the air. "I don't work for you. My job is to cover you, not fawn over you or rip you, just report on you."

Keep Reading Show less