Chicks feeding

Chicks feeding (Lloyd Fox, 2007)

A proposed state ban on arsenic in chicken feed won final Senate approval today, with supporters saying the amended measure protects both farmers and consumers while Eastern Shore lawmakers warn it could drive off the state's poultry industry.

The Senate voted 32 to 14 in favor of banning the sale or use of the poultry-feed additive roxarsone or any other drug containing arsenic, but only after carving out an exemption for another arsenic-laced medicine used to treat sick turkeys.

Roxarsone was pulled from the market nationwide last July after a Food and Drug Administration study found low levels of inorganic arsenic, a carcinogen, in the livers of chickens fed the veterinary drug. Until then it had been widely used to prevent disease and plump up birds.  Other studies have found arsenic in poultry manure and in water ways by crop fields fertilized with the birds' waste.

The Senate bill would ban roxarsone or other arsenic-containing additives unless and until the FDA completes a review of the drug and finds it is safe and effective and has no impact on the environment.  An FDA spokeswoman said the agency is conducting additional tests and consulting with the drug's maker, a subsidiary of Pfizer Inc., but could offer no time frame for when that would be completed.

Sen. Richard F. Colburn, a Republican representing the mid-Eastern Shore, asked for an exemption from the ban for Histostat, another Pfizer drug containing arsenic.  He contended the drug is the only known treatment for a potentially fatal turkey malady  It was unaffected by the FDA-requested suspension of roxarsone sales, and Colburn said federal regulators have no plans to study its health or environmental effects.

Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, a Prince George's County Democrat, countered that there is another drug turkey growers could use that doesn't contain arsenic, but he didn't fight the exemption, since the vast majority of poultry produced in Maryland are chickens.

Despite that and other changes to the bill to soften the ban, Eastern Shore lawmakers still voted against it. Sen. E.J. Pipkin, a Republican representing the upper Shore, said the measure was better but still sends what he called an "anti-farming" message to the state's poultry industry, which he said employs 25,000 people on the Delmarva Peninsula.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. praised the bill, though, saying he was proud of how senators had balanced concern for consumers and the environment with the needs of the state's poultry producers.

"I think this is the Senate at its finest." Miller said, "where you’re protecting farmers and you’re protecting consumers both."

The bill now goes back to the House, which had previously passed a version environmental activists said had been rendered toothless by amendments.  Food & Water Watch, a Washington-based group, urged the two chambers to get together and send the bill to Gov.Martin O'Malleyto sign it into law.