The poultry industry is rapidly phasing out use of arsenic in chicken feed after the Food and Drug Administration announced a "voluntary suspension" of the arsenic-laced drug because tests found elevated levels of the known carcinogen in birds fed the substance.
The announcement Wednesday (6/8) comes after years of controversy over the widespread poultry industry practice of giving chicks arsenic-laced feed to combat infection and give their flesh a pinker hue. Scientists and environmentalists have pressed state and federal governments to ban it, raising concerns about food safety and the environmental impact of arsenic in poultry waste getting into soil and streams.
Roxarsone has been fed to chickens since the 1940s, for what the industry calls "growth promotion, feed efficiency and improved pigmentation in chickens." The drug contained the less harmful organic form of arsenic, but scientific studies found that the organic arsenic in roxarsone switched to more harmful inorganic form, which is known to cause cancer.
FDA did tests of its own on 100 broiler chickens fed roxarsone and found elevated levels of inorganic arsenic in the chickens' livers. FDA and industry spokesmen stressed that though arsenic is carcinogenic, the levels detected in the chickens were very low and there's no health risk for people to continue eating roxarsone-treated poultry for the next month or so.
Alpharma, a subsidiary of Pfizer Inc., said it would voluntarily suspend sales of the animal drug, which it markets under the name 3-Nitro. All sales of the drug will be ended in the next 30 days, according to the company.
The FDA's action was praised by Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, who'd joined with other state attorneys general to press for a federal ban after state legislation to ban roxarsone twice failed to pass in Annapolis. Lobbyists for the state's poultry industry, which is concentrated on the Eastern Shore, had complained that a ban was unwarranted and would put Maryland chicken farmers and processors at a competitive disadvantage.
"It's absolutely the effect we've been trying to get all along," said Gansler. "It's going to take time for people to realize the chicken they're buying in the supermarket that's not as pink (as it is now) is not only as fresh but better for you."
Industry reaction was muted. Julie DeYoung, spokeswoman for Salisbury-based Perdue, the nation's second largest chicken producer, noted that it had phased out feeding roxarsone to its flocks in 2007.
"We've found that, through improved flock health programs and housing environments, we are able to produce healthy chickens without it," the Perdue spokeswoman wrote in an email.
Bill Satterfield, executive director of the regional trade group Delmarva Poultry Industry, noted that the other four chicken producers operating on the peninsula that still use roxarsone would have a month to phase out its use. Those companies are Allen Family Foods, Amick Farms, Mountaire Farms and Tyson Foods. Attempts to reach them for comment were not successful.
"Clearly this will have an effect," said Richard Lobb of the National Chicken Council, "but they're not being given much of a choice." He said roxarsone's use was widespread but not universal among chicken growers nationwide. While there is no other drug handy to replace roxarsone, Lobb said companies like Perdue have figured out ways to maintain their birds' health through other means.
Among those quick to react to the FDA announcement was Johns Hopkins University's Center for a Livable Future, which has focused on the health and environmental impacts of large-scale industrial farming. In the center's blog, Dr. Keeve Nachman, who has researched the arsenic issue, is quoted saying, "It is curious that the FDA says chickens produced with Roxarsone are safe for consumption, while also acknowledging it poses an increased public health risk." He said FDA had done little to examine the long-term health implications for consumers who've eaten roxarsone-treated chicken all their lives.
While pleased with the FDA action, at least one Maryland lawmaker vowed to keep pressing for an outright ban on arsenic in chicken feed. Del. Tom Hucker, a Montgomery County Democrat who's cosponsored ban legislation in Annapolis, noted that "the manufacturer could resume production at any time and it only affects chicken domestically. Clearly, we still need a ban."
(Chicks eating starter feed with roxarsone. 2007 Baltimore Sun photo by Lloyd Fox)