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News Opinion Editorial

Chicken without a side of arsenic

Maryland farmers produce no crop more valuable than chickens. The state ranks eighth nationally, and the 1.4 billion pounds of broilers grown each year are valued at more than $600 million, or roughly 40 percent of all the state's crops added together.

Yet the industry is in danger of harming itself — and others — with its continued opposition to a proposed ban on arsenic in chicken feed. How can poultry producers possibly oppose taking a known carcinogen out of the food chain? It appears many are more focused on keeping down costs than ensuring a healthful product and safe environment.

At issue is the drug Roxarsone, which has been routinely added to chicken feed to reduce the prevalence of the disease coccidiosis in crowded chicken houses and to spur faster growth. It's also believed to give the flesh a pink hue that's considered desirable in the grocery showcase. However, the drug contains a type of arsenic that, in sufficient quantity, can pose a danger to human health.

Last year, Roxarsone was voluntarily taken off the market by Alpharma, a Pfizer Inc. subsidiary, while the Food and Drug Administration reviews whether regulatory action is needed. Certainly, there's ample evidence of a problem. A recent FDA study found elevated levels of inorganic arsenic in chicken livers — although not enough to advise consumers not to eat chicken.

Still, one would think that Maryland producers would be worried enough about their product — and the industry's reputation — to take action. As it happens, the state's largest operator did, and it took that decisive action five years ago.

In 2007, Perdue Farms was sufficiently worried about arsenic that it banned Roxarsone from its poultry operations and instead set higher standards for management of its flocks and contract chicken houses. That kind of vigilance ensured the disease did not become a problem and further enhanced its reputation as a premium brand.

But its competitors claim a statewide ban is unnecessary and would hurt them financially. They point out that the arsenic used in Roxarsone and other animal feed additives is organic and not cancer-causing and dispute claims by critics that organic arsenic can transform into the inorganic kind.

Such arguments have so far given the industry enough cover to resist an arsenic ban despite the concerns of watchdog groups like Food & Water Watch and endorsements from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and Maryland League of Conservation Voters. Last year, legislation to impose such a prohibition died in the House Environmental Matters Committee.

Environmental groups have joined in the effort not simply because of the potential threat to human health but because poultry litter has been found to contain arsenic as well. Advocates say arsenic-laced feed results in 30,000 pounds of arsenic ending up in Maryland soil each year — a serious issue in a state already struggling to find ways to properly manage the vast amount of manure the Eastern Shore-based poultry industry generates and to improve the health of the Chesapeake Bay.

What's truly shocking about the industry's resistance is not that out-of-state, unregulated competitors might be given a financial advantage by a ban but that it doesn't perceive the dangers inherent in the status quo. At a time when Americans are increasingly interested in organic and healthful foods, they are standing by their arsenic when it's clearly unnecessary.

What Perdue has accomplished, others can, too. And they can rightly claim that Maryland-raised chickens are a better, safer product. On its website, Perdue still posts a statement proudly noting its decision to abandon Roxarsone in April 2007.

An opportunity is available that can only result in a better product, a safer environment and perhaps even a greater market share for Maryland firms. In this, the poultry industry could take a lesson from American automakers that have so often resisted higher safety and fuel-efficiency standards, only to proudly tout such improvements when they occur.

Ideally, the FDA would take appropriate action on arsenic in chicken feed as well. But there's no reason why Maryland ought not act first and demonstrate to the rest of the country that it sometimes takes some tough regulations to make a tender — and safer — chicken.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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