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Industry Body Puts Arsenic-in-Chicken Study in Perspective

13 May 2013

US - A recently published study from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health that found low levels of arsenic in chicken was conducted on a small sample and before the product was removed from the market, according to the National Chicken Council (NCC).

“It is not surprising or worrisome that very low levels of arsenic were found on chicken,” said Ashley Peterson, PhD, NCC vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs. The statement was in response to a very small Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health study that claims to have found extremely low levels of inorganic arsenic on chicken meat. “Arsenic is a naturally occurring element in our environment that is widely distributed within the Earth’s soil, air and water.”

Chickens in the United States produced for meat, known as broilers, are no longer given feed additives that contain arsenicals. Some broiler flocks used to be given feed that contained a product called Roxarsone, which included safe levels of organic arsenic. Even though the science shows that such low levels of arsenic do not harm chickens or the people eating them, this product was removed from the market in June, 2011 and is no longer used in raising broilers in the US. No other feed additives containing arsenic are currently fed to broilers in the US.

Dr Peterson added: “The samples analysed, taken as part of this extremely small, agenda-driven study, were purchased before Roxarsone was removed from the market in June, 2011, and the conclusions are used to intentionally mislead consumers.

Even if one agrees with the scientific methods and conclusions of this controversial study, some perspective is needed. For instance, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets safety limits for the amount of arsenic in drinking water. That limit is 10 parts per billion. Researchers in this study claim to have found about two parts per billion of inorganic arsenic in conventional chicken, or five times less than what the EPA deems as safe for water. (To place one part per billion in perspective, this quantity is equivalent to 1.7 inches in relation to the circumference of the Earth.)

To put the authors’ cancer risk calculation into perspective, if a person consumed an additional one glass of water every day they would ingest approximately the same amount of inorganic arsenic, and the same calculation could be made. “Would the public be cautioned about drinking an additional glass of water each day?” Dr Peterson asked.

It is also interesting to note that the proposed EPA slope factor (25.7) for cancer risk is used by the authors rather than the currently accepted EPA slope factor (1.5). If the accepted and current EPA slope factor was used, the cancer risk by the authors’ own numbers changes the risk from 3.7 additional cases of bladder or lung cancer per 100,000 people to less than 0.22 additional cases.

“The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) provide oversight and guidance to ensure food and beverages in the U.S. are safe for you and your family,” Dr Peterson concluded. “There is no documented evidence to suggest that very tiny levels of arsenic in our food supply pose any health problems.”

Bloomberg School of Public Health: Poultry Drug Increases Levels of Toxic Arsenic in Chicken Meat

Chickens likely raised with arsenic-based drugs result in chicken meat that has higher levels of inorganic arsenic, a known carcinogen, according to a new study led by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future at the Bloomberg School of Public Health.

This is the first study to show concentrations of specific forms of arsenic (e.g., inorganic arsenic versus other forms) in retail chicken meat, and the first to compare those concentrations according to whether or not the poultry was raised with arsenical drugs. The findings provide evidence that arsenical use in chickens poses public health risks and indicate that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the agency responsible for regulating animal drugs, should ban arsenicals. The study has been published online in the scientific journal, Environmental Health Perspectives.

Conventional, antibiotic-free, and USDA Organic chicken samples were purchased from 10 US metropolitan areas between December 2010 and June 2011, when an arsenic-based drug then manufactured by Pfizer and known as roxarsone was readily available to poultry companies that wished to add it to their feed. In addition to inorganic arsenic, the researchers were able to identify residual roxarsone in the meat they studied; in the meat where roxarsone was detected, levels of inorganic arsenic were four times higher than the levels in USDA Organic chicken (in which roxarsone and other arsenicals are prohibited from use).

Arsenic-based drugs have been used in poultry production for decades. Arsenical drugs are approved to make poultry grow faster and improve the pigmentation of the meat. The drugs are also approved to treat and prevent parasites in poultry. In 2010, industry representatives estimated that 88 percent of the roughly nine billion chickens raised for human consumption in the US received roxarsone. In July 2011, Pfizer voluntarily removed roxarsone from the US market, but the company may sell the drug overseas and could resume marketing it in the US at any time. Pfizer still domestically markets the arsenical drug, nitarsone, which is chemically similar to roxarsone. Currently in the US, there is no federal law prohibiting the sale or use of arsenic-based drugs in poultry feed. (In January, Maryland became the first US state to ban the use of most arsenicals in chicken feed.)

Lead author Keeve Nachman, PhD, said: "The suspension of roxarsone sales is a good thing in the short term, but it isn’t a real solution. Hopefully this study will persuade FDA to ban the drug and permanently keep it off the market."

To find out more about the study, click here.

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