State senators are scheduled to take a final vote today on whether to ban the use of arsenic in poultry feed, with proponents arguing it's needed to protect Marylanders and the Chesapeake Bay while Eastern Shore lawmakers contend it's unwarranted meddling with the state's poultry industry.
Chicken and turkey producers have long used roxarsone, a veterinary drug containing arsenic, to treat common avian diseases and to plump up their birds. But the practice has raised concerns for human health and the environment.
The maker of roxarsone, a subsidiary of Pfizer Inc., suspended sales of the drug nationwide last July after a Food and Drug Administration study found low levels of inorganic arsenic, a carcinogen, in the livers of treated chickens. Other studies have detected arsenic in chickens' manure and in waterways next to fields fertilized with poultry manure.
Environmentalists are pressing for a state ban because of the unsettled nature of the federal regulatory action. The FDA has not formally withdrawn approval for the drug. Agency spokeswoman Tamara Ward emailed that "FDA is conducting some additional confirmatory testing to address some remaining scientific questions." She couldn't say when that testing would be complete.
Proponents of the ban argue that the drug is not needed, noting that Salisbury-based Perdue Farms, one of the nation's largest poultry producers, stopped using it on its flocks in 2007. Perdue still opposes the ban, though. Spokeswoman Julie DeYoung emailed that the company believes the state shouldn't set limits on a practice already regulated by the federal government.
But Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, a Prince George's County Democrat and the bill's chief Senate sponsor, argued that arsenic in poultry feed represents an unnecessary risk for people who eat chicken, and for fish and other animals exposed to it in the environment. He pointed out that the bill, as amended by a Senate committee, would allow state poultry growers to use the additive again if the FDA reaffirms its approval of roxarsone after evaluating its safety, effectiveness and impact on the environment.
Shore lawmakers countered that the ban is unnecessary and would hobble Maryland's poultry growers if the drug does go back on the market in other states. Sen. James N. Mathias Jr., D-Worcester, warned that the industry, which employs 25,000 people on the Delmarva Peninsula, already feels beleagured by tightening state and federal environmental rules.
"One more step, one more straw and you’re going to break this camel’s back," he said.
The proposed ban received preliminary approval Wednesday, though on a 26-20 vote senators weakened it slightly by reducing the number of hurdles the controversial drug would have to clear in order to be okayed for use again in Maryland. Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, a Charles County Democrat, successfully argued that federal regulators shouldn't be expected to assess the impact of arsenic residues on the Chesapeake Bay or to determine that exposure to arsenic is "unavoidable and necessary."
Pinsky said the change lowered the bar for resuming use of the drug in Maryland
"But we still think it's an important bill," he added, which would take a step toward formally banning the use of arsenic in poultry feed nationwide.
pass the Senate, the House would have to concur before it could become law. Delegates have approved a different version of the bill, but one which proponents said had been amended to effectively nullify the ban.