Playing Chicken - Avoiding Arsenic in Your Meat

By David Wallinga, M.D., The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy - This reports looks at the "decades-old practice" of adding arsenic into chicken feed and links this directly to arsenic residues in U.S. chicken meat.
calendar icon 16 April 2006
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Playing Chicken - Avoiding Arsenic in Your Meat - By David Wallinga, M.D., This Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy - The reports looks at decades-old practice of adding arsenic into chicken feed and links this directly to arsenic residues in U.S. chicken meat.

Table of contents

  • Executive summary (below)
    I. The modern American chicken: Arsenic use in context
    II. Concerns with adding arsenic routinely to chicken feed
    III. What we found: Arsenic in chicken meat
Appendix A. FDA-approved feed additives containing arsenic
Appendix B. Testing methodology

Executive summary

Arsenic causes cancer even at the low levels currently found in our environment. Arsenic also contributes to other diseases, including heart disease, diabetes and declines in intellectual function, the evidence suggests. Some human exposure to arsenic stems directly from its natural occurrence in the earth’s crust. Other arsenic is mined and then used intentionally, for commercial purposes.

Drinking water, rice, playground equipment — Americans’ daily exposure to cancer-causing arsenic comes from a variety of sources. Regulatory action has reduced some of that daily exposure. As advised by multiple bodies of scientific experts, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finally lowered its long-outdated drinking water standard in 2001, dropping by five-fold the amount of arsenic legally allowed in tap water, for example.

Arsenic also contaminates many of your favorite foods, including fish, rice and chicken. Some food contamination stems from intentional uses of arsenic. In this report we clearly connect arsenic residues in chicken meat to the decades-old practice of intentionally putting arsenic into chicken feed. Of the 8.7 billion American broiler chickens produced each year, estimates are that at least 70 percent have been fed arsenic. Some of that arsenic stays in chicken meat.

We show in Chapter 1 of this report how and why arsenic is routinely fed to most of America’s chickens. In Chapter 2, we review some of the latest science on how arsenic impacts our health, and who is at greatest risk. In short, there are many science-based reasons to avoid ingesting arsenic, whatever its form.

Our arsenic testing of the chicken meat that people eat— the most extensive ever—shows that much of it contains arsenic. Our testing also indicates that some of America’s largest chicken producers already successfully raise chickens in ways that contaminate it with little or no arsenic. See Chapter 3 for more details.

Even if our testing hadn’t found arsenic in many of America’s most popular brands of chicken products, there would still be compelling reasons for producers to stop feeding arsenic to chickens.

One way or another, putting arsenic in chicken feed means exposing more people to more arsenic. We estimate from 1.7 to 2.2 million pounds of roxarsone, a single arsenic feed additive, are given each year to chickens. Arsenic is an element—it doesn’t degrade or disappear. Arsenic subsequently contaminates much of the 26-55 billion pounds of litter or waste generated each year by the U.S. broiler chicken industry, likely also contaminating the communities where that waste is generated or dispersed. In the chicken producing town of Prairie Grove, Mo., house dust in every one of 31 homes examined was found to contain at least two kinds of arsenic also found in chicken litter.

Giving arsenic to chickens further adds to an already significant arsenic burden in our environment from other intentional, now-banned uses. For example, American grown rice contains 1.4 to 5 times more arsenic on average than does rice from Europe, India and Bangladesh— scientists think the likely culprit is the American practice of growing rice on former cotton fields contaminated with long-banned arsenic pesticides. For decades, Americans also were exposed intentionally to arsenic from the use of lumber “pressure-treated” with chromated copper arsenate (CCA), a pesticide mixture that is 22 percent arsenic by weight. This contaminated lumber, much of it still in use, carries a familiar greenish hue. The EPA finally ended the manufacture and sale of CCA-treated lumber in 2004. At that time, more than 90 percent of all outdoor wood decks, playground sets and other wooden structures in the U.S. were made of arsenic-treated wood.

Read the complete 34 page report

Playing Chicken - Avoiding Arsenic in Your Meat

April 2006

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