Caged ChickensIf your home is in Maryland, you live in the first and only state in the country to ban the use, sale and distribution of arsenic, a known carcinogen, in poultry feed.

And why was arsenic–that longtime favorite of murderers– fed to chickens and turkeys in the first place? Mainly because of “coccidiosis” –a nasty parasitical disease that attacks chickens confined to cramped cages on large industrial farms. It all started in the forties when multi- food corporations wiped out many small farms along with the practice of raising chickens in the free open air. In addition to treating coccidiosis, it turned out arsenic also made chickens grow faster and bigger and colored their flesh a rosy hue.

For those worried about possible negatives (wasn’t arsenic after-all a POISON?) Pfizer explained that their first big arsenic product, Roxarsone was organic– completely inert– unlike the more dangerous inorganic form. Plus only the merest fraction of arsenic was actually consumed by the birds. The stuff  was totally harmless they said.

And the FDA, along with Americans who have always been big chicken lovers (9 billion broilers now raised yearly) bought it.

But as chicken farms consolidated and grew bigger, more and more problems and doubts started raising their troublesome heads. Evidence began growing that the arsenic feed was in fact being transformed into the far more toxic, non-organic form while passing through chicken’s digestive tracts. In 1999 the European Union, as usual ahead of us in matters of food safety, banned the use of all arsenic compounds in animal feeds.

Then in 2006, research from the University of Arizona discovered that arsenic in Roxarsone goes inorganic rapidly in chicken manure and then travels far and wide either spread on farm fields or as fertilizer that eventually washes into our waterways. Researches from John Hopkins also discovered heightened levels of toxic inorganic arsenic in tap water near fields where manure from Roxarsone-treated chickens was spread. To top it all off, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy did something no one else had done before – They waltzed into supermarkets and conducted tests on the actual chickens. Their findings? Three quarters of the raw chickens contained detectable levels of arsenic.

According to Food and Water Watch, exposure to inorganic arsenic put humans at risk for bladder, kidney, lung, liver and prostate cancer. The carcinogen is also associated with cardiovascular disease and diabetes, plus neurological problems in children.

Galvanized into action by all this evidence, the FDA got in the act three long years later and conducted its own tests on 100 chickens. They too found significantly higher toxic inorganic arsenic levels in Roxarsone-treated chickens. So much higher in fact that Pfizer got the message loud and clear and voluntarily removed Roxarsone from the US market.  Pfizer will of course still be selling the stuff in other countries. And their voluntary recall in no way affects the production of other arsenic feed brands.

At this point we can only hope that all the other states will swiftly follow Maryland’s example and ban arsenic feed from the poultry and environmental scene.

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