Earlier this year, social media was all a-twitter with revelations that more than seven out of ten chickens sold in the U.S. contained arsenic, a well-known poison (in large enough doses) that’s also a carcinogen (in smaller doses, over long time periods). Thanks to one article that went viral, people began believing their poultry was poisoned.
As it turns out, the FDA made no such announcement at the beginning of 2015. But something similar happened three years earlier, when the FDA declared that Pfizer, the American pharmaceutical corporation, would halt the sales of a feed additive that contained arsenic.
But there have been some new developments. Recent reports have uncovered more revelations related to poultry and arsenic. Here’s the truth, plus some tips on how to protect yourself. . .
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The domino effect of research into drug-laced food
The animal drug 3-Nitro was the offender back in 2011. That’s when the FDA conducted an agency analysis and found very low levels of inorganic arsenic in the livers of chickens who’d received the drug. Disturbingly, farmers had been using this drug for decades to promote rapid growth in their flocks.
3-Nitro was first approved in 1944, praised for its ability to kill intestinal parasites, stimulate growth, and add a healthy, pink color to meat. Organic arsenic was one of the ingredients, known for being less toxic than inorganic arsenic. Because of this, chicken producers believed it wouldn’t affect humans who ate treated chickens. (“Organic” is used here in the chemical sense – meaning the arsenic atom is embedded in a molecule that contains carbon.)
According to the FDA at the time of the 2011 studies, the amount of arsenic found in chickens was so low it posed no serious health threat. Still, they decided to act on the findings, which is a relief, because it led to a formal recall of the drug. (I’ll point out here that Perdue and organic chicken producers did not use the drug at the time, and of course, haven’t since. And “organic” in this case means grown without pesticides, herbicides, hormones or drugs.)
One of the many reasons we can all be thankful 3-Nitro was pulled is the growing evidence that organic (i.e. carbon-bound) arsenic can change into the more toxic inorganic arsenic. This concern is what prompted the FDA to react in the first place: New ways to measure inorganic arsenic in meat.
In the research that followed the initial findings, scientists fed 3-Nitro (also known generically as roxarsone) to roughly 50 chickens. The results showed those chickens without exception had higher levels of inorganic arsenic in their systems. (Pfizer argued that its own animal studies found 3-Nitro to be perfectly safe.)
After the FDA findings, Pfizer agreed to halt sales of 3-Nitro 30 days later, supposedly giving chicken farmers time to find other options. At the time, Pfizer also agreed to do a separate assessment of another, smaller-selling arsenic-based feed medicine known as Histostat and made by Zoetis Animal Health. Histostat (generic nitarsone) was not studied by the FDA during the three-month Nitro study, and sale of that drug was not suspended.
This initial event set off some promising changes, including the February 2014 withdrawal of FDA approval for three other arsenic-based animal drugs.
Warning: Keep your holiday dinners safe this year!
Fast-forward to April of 2015, and (no surprise), Zoetis Animal Health, the maker of Histostat, announced to the FDA it would suspend sales of that drug, too. The drug maker also formally requested the FDA to withdraw approval for the drug.
As of last spring, Histostat was the only arsenic-based animal drug approved for livestock. Specifically, it was approved for the prevention of blackhead disease in turkeys and chickens, but is mostly used in turkeys. Blackhead occurs seasonally in certain parts of the U.S. and is a significant cause of death in turkeys.
It’s currently being phased out, but is still available for the 2015 season … meaning unless you purchased an organic turkey this Thanksgiving, your meal may have been contaminated. (By the time I learned this, it was too late to give you a warning before the holiday. I hope you’re like me and switched to organic foods long ago. If you did, this whole report is just somebody else’s problem.)
This known cancer-causing agent is already too common
Plenty of scientific evidence shows that organic arsenic compounds are toxic to humans and animals. And inorganic arsenic is a known cause of cancer.
The problem goes deeper than the risk of humans eating contaminated chickens. As environmentalists point out, the waste from chickens treated with 3-Nitro was commonly used as fertilizer on crops, meaning arsenic regularly leached into our water supplies. In some cases, cattle were probably also exposed since chicken waste is sometimes fed to cattle.
Organic arsenic is a naturally occurring substance and can be found in water, air, soil, and food. But, as I mentioned before, plenty of scientific reports show that it readily transforms into inorganic arsenic, which is a known carcinogen.
Inorganic compounds of arsenic are often found in building products (like pressure-treated woods), in pesticides, in some glass manufacturing, and in arsenic-contaminated water. It has no smell or taste, so you don’t really know when you’re breathing, drinking, or eating it.
Exposure to high levels of arsenic has been linked to several types of cancer including skin, bladder, kidney, and lung cancer.
It’s up to you to protect yourself from arsenic overload
Here’s a sobering fact. While I applaud the FDA for doing something about this, the 3-Nitro study was long overdue and won’t be followed by enough of its kind. Thanks, they say, to budget constraints, the agency has steadily had to reduce a large chunk of its scientific and laboratory staff over the years. Besides that, the FDA tends to do whatever is best for its friends in the drug industry.
Whenever possible, buy chicken that is “Certified Organic.” You’ll not only avoid arsenic, you’ll also avoid hormones and antibiotics. I recommend you buy organic for all your meat purchases, in fact.
Also, note that 3-Nitro is still approved for use in chickens and other poultry in Canada, Mexico, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam. You’re probably better off with other sources of protein like fish, beans, and tofu.