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Arsenic in chicken

(article, Culinate staff)

For decades, the New York Times reported earlier this month, chicken farmers have fed their birds an arsenic-laced drug that kills intestinal parasites, promotes growth, and makes fresh meat look pinker. The drug — called 3-Nitro or roxarsone, made by chiefly by Pfizer — uses organic arsenic, which is less toxic than inorganic arsenic. 

But the FDA has turned up evidence that not only does chicken meat retain trace amounts of arsenic, but the poison is converted from the organic version by the birds into the carcinogenic inorganic version. 

Drugmaker Pfizer has suspended sales of the drug in the U.S., but it's still approved for use overseas. Other concerns range from the environmental:

bq. Environmentalists have long been concerned that the waste from chickens treated with roxarsone, when used as fertilizer on crops, causes arsenic to leach into water supplies and estuaries. Even cattle are exposed, since chicken litter is sometimes included in feed. 

to the political:

bq. The F.D.A. once routinely conducted its own studies of animal and human drugs, but limited budgets led the agency to eliminate much of its scientific and laboratory capacity over the years. The roxarsone study is a triumph for agency scientists but one unlikely to be repeated very often. The agency asked for $183 million in additional funds for food safety efforts next year, but House Republicans have instead proposed cutting $87 million.

Over at his new Mother Jones blog, Tom Philpott has a savage analysis of the scandal: "A closer look at the arsenic-laced feed saga reveals a tattered, industry-dominated regulatory regime that abuses public health and the environment alike." His biggest reveal? That the chicken industry — and the feds — have known about the inorganic-arsenic problem for years.

bq. Most likely, Pfizer's move will spur the poultry industry to wean itself completely from the dodgy additive . . . eventually. At this point, what's the rush? Twelve years after the European Union banned roxarsone, five years after it emerged as an obvious public-health menace in the scientific literature, U.S. farmers were still applying 2 million pounds of it to chicken feed each year at the time of Pfizer's decision, Food and Water Watch estimates. And whether they liked it or not, millions of consumers were — in fact, still are — getting a nice dash of arsenic with their nuggets.

So buy organic chicken already. Or skip it entirely.