Maryland Moves Near to Banning Arsenic in Feed

MARYLAND, US - The movement to ban arsenic in chicken feed has been bolstered by new bills in the Maryland State legislature.
calendar icon 24 February 2011
clock icon 6 minute read

Efforts to protect consumers and the environment from the harmful effects of a known poison have been boosted in recent days by the introduction of bills in the state legislature, according to Food & Water Watch. Introduced by State Senator Paul G. Pinsky (D-22) and by State Delegate Tom Hucker (D-20) both would ban arsenic-based drugs commonly used in the feed of commercial poultry operations.

News of these bills was announced today at a press conference where Senator Pinsky and Delegate Hucker were joined by State Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, as well as Dr Keeve Nachman, a researcher from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and prominent consumer, public health and environmental advocates.

"In addition to the arsenic Americans consume at the dinner table, American broiler chickens generate billions of pounds of animal waste each year, causing significant runoff of arsenic into soils and surrounding waterways," said Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler. "The poultry industry's continued use of arsenic creates entirely unnecessary and avoidable risks to our health and environment. The time to protect our families and the environment from the hazards of this dangerous chemical is long overdue."

Arsenic is often added to chicken feed in the form of the compound, roxarsone. While it is intended to control the common intestinal disease coccidiosis and promote growth, there is little evidence that it is necessary to support these functions. Chronic exposure to arsenic has also been shown to increase the risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, neurological deficits and other health problems.

"Many Americans purchase chicken for its nutritional benefits," said Maryland State Delegate Tom Hucker. "Consumers need to know that the chicken they are buying for their families isn't poisoning them. In addition, once arsenic gets into our soil and into the Bay, we can't get it out. It's time to use common sense and to stop adding arsenic to poultry feed."

The seventh largest broiler-producing state in the US according to the 2007 US Census of Agriculture, Maryland sold nearly 300 million broiler chickens that year. On the Delmarva Peninsula alone, 1,700 chicken operations raise 11 million chickens per week. Researchers estimate that between 11 and 12 metric tons of arsenic are applied to agricultural land there every year via poultry waste. Groundwater tests on both sides of the Chesapeake Bay's Coastal Plains found arsenic in some household wells reaching up to 13 times the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) tolerance limit, according to Food & Water Watch.

"Allowing arsenic to be added to poultry feed here in Maryland when, at the same time, we're trying to reduce the harmful effects of chicken litter to our great natural resource, the Chesapeake Bay, seems ill-conceived and illogical," said State Senator Paul G. Pinsky. "It's time to say, 'No more.'"

There is also little evidence that roxarsone is effective or necessary in promoting growth or preventing the spread of bacteria in chicken. Yet despite this, arsenicals are widely used within the chicken industry. A study by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy found detectable amounts of arsenic in 55 per cent of chickens from grocery stores and 100 per cent of chicken bought from fast-food restaurants.

"Science shows that using arsenic in chicken feed is dangerous and unnecessary," said Food & Water Watch Assistant Director, Patty Lovera. "With the federal government doing little to regulate arsenic-based drugs, leaders in Maryland have a real opportunity here to protect consumer and environmental welfare by banning their use in poultry production."

Originally approved as an animal feed additive in 1944, arsenic is regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration and the United States Department of Agriculture, with no one agency having the power to fully protect consumers and the environment from its harmful effects. The FDA set allowed levels for arsenic residues in poultry in 1951 and has not revised them since despite the fact that the average American’s chicken consumption has tripled from less than 20 pounds in the 1940s to nearly 60 pounds in 2008.

"The science behind FDA's approval of roxarsone and the corresponding chicken residue tolerances haven't been revisited since the 1950s," said Dr Keeve Nachman, a researcher with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Director of the Farming for the Future Program at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future. "It ignores a large number of epidemiological studies conducted since then that demonstrate that low level arsenic exposures are concerning," he noted.

While some within the industry maintain that roxarsone is an organic form of arsenic, and therefore carries no harmful effects, the drug rapidly converts into the toxic inorganic form both in the intestinal tract of chickens and in poultry waste. Typically used as fertiliser, the waste contaminates soil, water and crops.

"Two of the largest poultry producers in the country have proven that they can continue to make a profit and produce chickens without feeding them arsenic," said Drew Koslow, Choptank Riverkeeper for the Midshore Riverkeeper Conservancy. "We need to eliminate the use of known carcinogens wherever possible in order to reduce risk to Eastern Shore residents and its aquatic environment."

Food & Water Watch has announced that it is joining forces with over 120 organisations and businesses to launch the 'Hold the Arsenic' campaign, a grassroots initiative to ignite momentum among citizens and community leaders to support these bills, and encourage Governor Martin O'Malley to sign them into law.

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