I'm back from nine days in Florida (more on that later) -- just in time for the final week of the General Assembly, with most environmental legislation still hanging in the balance.
In a dispute pitting environmentalists against the poultry industry (and maybe even a major drug manufacturer), the Senate is set to take up today (4/4) a bill (SB207/HB167) that would ban the use of arsenic in chicken and turkey feed.
Poultry producers have long fed their birds roxarsone to control parasites, but concerns have been raised about the health and environmental consequences. The maker of the drug pulled it from the market last year after a study by the US Food and Drug Administration found low levels of inorganic arsenic, a carcinogen, in the livers of chickens treated with roxarsone, or 3-Nitro.
Although roxarsone's maker, a subsidiary of the big pharmaceutical company Pfizer Inc., voluntarily suspended sales, the FDA has not formally revoked its approval for use in poultry feed.
Proponents of the bill say they want to ban the drug in Maryland to prevent its possible reintroduction at some later date, and they point to other studies indicating that arsenic was showing up in chicken manure spread on fields to fertilize crops, and then washing off into nearby streams.
Poultry producers oppose the ban, arguing that if roxarsone is brought back on the market, the state's chicken and turkey growers would be put at a competitive disadvantage. They also contend the product is safe and the only effective way to combat diseases in their flocks. Ban proponents, though, say it's not really needed to raise healthy birds and point to the decision by major producer Perdue Farms to stop using roxarsone five years ago.
The measure has been fiercely debated, with its chief House sponsor, Del. Tom Hucker, D-Montgomery County, contending the bill has been the target of "a furious lobbying campaign" by poultry and pharmaceutical industry lobbyists bent on killing it.
The poultry industry has been open in its hostility to the bill. A spokeswoman for Salisbury-based Perdue says the company still opposes the ban, even though it's not using roxarsone, because it wants to leave regulation of animal-health products to the federal government.
Less clear is the stance of Pfizer, which has retained the services of at least a pair of lobbyists in Annapolis. Company spokesman Christopher Loder would only say that Pfizer is "following the debate" and declined to say if the company plans or hopes to resume sales of roxarsone in the future. Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, D-Prince George's County, the chief Senate sponsor, noted that one of Pfizer's lobbyists, Timothy Perry, former chief of staff to Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, was present during the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee's hearing on the bill.
The House overwhelmingly approved the measure, but with last-minute amendments that environmentalists say effectively negated the ban. Pinsky says the Senate committee "tweaked" the bill last week to reinstate the ban's effectiveness. Floor action was delayed until today.
Pinsky acknowledges that the levels of arsenic detected in birds weren't high enough to present an imminent health threat to people eating treated chicken, but he argues the additive presents an "avoidable risk" to both humans and the environment that growers can do without.