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This Is Your Chicken on Drugs: Count the Antibiotics in Your Nuggets

Scientists have found traces of banned antibiotics, arsenic, and seven other household medications from Tylenol to Prozac in factory-farmed poultry.

Forget a secret blend of herbs and spices: Your factory-farmed chicken is packed with hidden pharmaceuticals, too.

In a new study, researchers tested samples of feather meal— the poultry feathers that are ground up and added to pig, cattle, fish, and, yes, chicken feed. The scientists found traces of banned antibiotics, arsenic, and seven other household medications, from Tylenol to Prozac. Take a big bite, America—this is your chicken on drugs.

Researchers chose to examine feather meal because—much like human fingernails—chicken feathers readily absorb the chemicals and drugs birds consume. The study, which was conducted by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future and Arizona State University, analyzed 12 feather meal samples from the U.S. and China. Results indicate that the majority of chickens are fed a drug cocktail before they make their way to consumers’ dinner plates. Then, after the birds are processed, traces of these drugs are fed to other animals in the form of feather meal, perpetuating the pharmaceutical food chain.

The study’s most alarming finding for the nugget-loving set is the presence of flouroquinolones, a class of antibiotics that have been banned from farms since 2005. The Food and Drug Administration outlawed these particular antibiotics several years ago after increasing evidence linked them to drug-resistant strains of Campylobacter bacteria, an infection causing nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, fever, and abdominal pain in humans.

What’s a long-outlawed drug still doing in eight out of 12 samples of feather meal? The National Chicken Council, an industry group representing poultry producers, claims that researchers may have been testing old feather meal from before flouroquinolones were banned, or that study samples were contaminated. But scientists say that’s a nugget of info they just can’t swallow. “The discovery of certain antibiotics in feather meal strongly suggests the continued use of these drugs, despite the ban put in place in 2005 by the FDA,” Center for a Livable Future project director David Love, said in a press release. “The public health community has long been frustrated with the unwillingness of FDA to effectively address what antibiotics are fed to food animals.”

Banned antibiotics aren’t the only surprises scientists found. Researchers discovered traces of acetaminophen (Tylenol’s active ingredient), an antihistamine (like that found in Benadryl), an antidepressant, arsenic, and caffeine, among other drugs. Some poultry producers feed their birds Benadryl, Tylenol, and Prozac to calm them down—stressed chickens grow slower and produce tougher meat. Caffeine is used to give birds a burst of energy and encourage them to eat more (and thus, grow meatier). Arsenic seeps in from roxarsone, a feed additive designed to prevent infection and turn meat a more appetizing shade of pink.

This study isn’t intended to send consumers into panic mode—researchers themselves say it’s unclear how these drugs’ presence in chickens actually impact consumers, and there’s no immediate human health threat. But the findings add support to a fact many of us already suspected: Big poultry producers are pumping their birds full of a lot of dubious pharmaceuticals, and they’re not exactly transparent about the process. The average American eats about 100 pounds of chicken every year. Consumers should be aware of whether those chicken dinners are coming with a side of Prozac, a dollop of Benadryl, or a smattering of banned antibiotics.

What’s more, this research illustrates just how ineffective the FDA is at regulating Big Food and protecting consumer health. Despite a rapidly growing pile of evidence linking antibiotic use on factory farms to the rise of drug-resistant infections like MRSA, industrial agriculture still constitutes a whopping 80 percent of America’s total antibiotic use. These drugs aren’t used to treat disease, but to promote unnatural growth and prevent animals from getting sick from their disgusting, overcrowded factory farm environments. And this lion’s share of antibiotic use is totally legal—this study just shows that illegal drugs are also used regularly under the FDA’s not-so-watchful eye.

Your chicken tenders may already be improving slightly: Two weeks ago, a federal judge ruled that the FDA must address the overuse of antibiotics in the food industry by withdrawing its approval of two kinds of antibiotics. (The makers of these drugs can contest the withdrawal, though, so it’s still unclear whether antibiotics will ever be completely removed from the meat supply). And after the FDA found inorganic arsenic in supermarket chickens in June 2011, Pfizer removed roxarsone, the arsenic-based feed additive, from the marketplace pending further study. (At one point, nearly nine out of 10 broiler chickens were regularly fed the stuff). Maryland’s Senate also just approved a bill banning roxarsone, which now awaits final authorization in the House.

But despite these small advancements, the food industry—especially meat production—remains a murky mess. Producers aren’t transparent about what, exactly, they’re feeding their birds, and the FDA rarely asks. Chickens and other meats have served as drug mules to the American public for too long. It’s time for the FDA to do away with its voluntary guidelines for America’s meat producers and start imposing hard rules on how animals should be raised. The health of animals—and the millions of people who eat them—depends on it.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user Loozrboy

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