Chicken farmers nationwide have stopped feeding their flocks a drug containing arsenic since a 2011 government study suggested the cancer-causing metal may be tainting poultry, but Maryland lawmakers are still struggling with whether to ban the once-widespread practice.
Health advocates and environmental activists squared off Wednesday in Annapolis with poultry industry officials over a bill that would prohibit feeding chickens and turkeys any additive containing arsenic. Proponents called it a matter of prudence, while opponents warned it could hurt Maryland's leading agricultural sector, already struggling to stay profitable.
A bid to ban arsenic from chicken feed failed to get out of the House Environmental Matters Committee last year. A Pfizer subsidiary that makes the animal drug Roxarsone has since halted sales after a Food and Drug Administration study found low levels of arsenic in the livers of broiler chickens. Before that, most poultry produced nationwide had been routinely fed the medication to kill parasites and boost the birds' growth.
The FDA is reviewing the study and has yet to decide whether it warrants regulatory action. Proponents of banning the practice in Maryland worry that the drug maker could resume sales of Roxarsone or another arsenic-containing medication for poultry.
They argue there are also environmental impacts. University of Maryland scientists reviewing available research found that the arsenic fed to chickens passes through the birds into their waste in its cancer-causing form and is building up in farm fields fertilized with poultry manure.
"We've been adding 30,000 pounds of arsenic to Maryland's soil every year for decades," said Del. Tom Hucker, a Montgomery County Democrat and chief sponsor of the measure. "We're in a hole and we should stop digging."
Hucker said Maryland should act because it wasn't clear that the FDA would, and he pointed out that the state's largest poultry producer, Perdue Farms, based in Salisbury, had voluntarily stopped using the arsenic-containing drug in 2007. His bill drew support from Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, whose representative credited Gansler with prompting the FDA inquiry, and from a number of health and environmental groups.
Poultry industry officials, though, say the issue should be left up to FDA regulators to decide whether the arsenic-containing drug presents a public health threat.
"With all due respect to members of the committee," said Bill Satterfield, executive director of Delmarva Poultry Industries, "you all are not toxicologists, biochemists, medical doctors and some of the other skill sets that are needed to make these technical decisions."
Satterfield said arsenic occurs naturally in soils, and he said higher levels of the cancer-causing inorganic form of the metal have been detected in some fruits and vegetables than what showed up in chickens or their manure.
Donald Ritter, director of health services for Mountaire Farms, another of the state's five poultry companies, disputed ban proponents' assertions that the industry is doing fine without being able to use the medication, which treats parasites that can infect the birds' intestinal tracts.
"Times are tough," he said, noting that two Delaware-based companies have filed for bankruptcy in the past year.
And he warned that if the FDA clears the use of Roxarsone, a ban in Maryland would put the state's farmers at a competitive disadvantage with out-of-state producers.
Several committee members expressed concern about how a ban might affect state farmers and businesses.
"I haven't made up my mind whether this makes sense or not," said Del. Cathleen Vitale, an Anne Arundel County Republican.