In 2010, 88% of chickens in the United States received feed containing arsenic. (photo: Bigstockphoto.com)
A new study from Johns Hopkins University updates 2006 research that found excess levels of arsenic in U.S. chicken. In 2009 the Center for Food Safety petitioned the FDA to stop the use of arsenic in chicken feed. The Center’s lawyer Paige Tomaselli tells host Steve Curwood that the FDA has not responded to the petition, so now the Center has filed a lawsuit.
CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Boston, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. Health concerns have many people in the United States forgoing red meat in favor of poultry, but a new study from researchers at Johns Hopkins University has found excess levels of arsenic in chicken. In 2009, the Center for Food Safety filed a petition, asking the Food and Drug Administration to ban arsenic in the food chain. But the FDA has yet to act, so the Center is launching a lawsuit against the FDA. Lead attorney Paige Tomaselli joins us now from Japan via Skype. Welcome to Living on Earth.
TOMASELLI: Thank you.
CURWOOD: So first, Paige, how does this arsenic end up in the chicken we eat?
TOMASELLI: Well, arsenic is a feed additive. It’s administered to chickens, turkeys and swine as an antimicrobial, so it's in the food that the animals eat.
CURWOOD: Well, when did people begin feeding the chickens and turkeys and apparently pigs arsenic?
TOMASELLI: It started in the 1940s. The first arsenic-based feed additive, Roxarsone, was approved I believe in 1944, and so for the past 70 years, arsenic’s been administered to food animals.
CURWOOD: But wait a second; arsenic is generally a poison. What’s the advantage of using it in chicken feed?
TOMASELLI: Well, arsenic is an antimicrobial. So it’s used to treat parasites in food animals, but it's also used to increase the weight of animals so that they have more feed efficiency, and to change the color of the chicken flesh to make it more appealing for human beings.
CURWOOD: And how common is the use of these additives containing arsenic?
TOMASELLI: In 2010, the industry estimated that 88 percent of the roughly nine billion chickens in the United States raised for meat were administered arsenic-based feed additives.
CURWOOD: And what’s the proportion of turkeys and pork that get this?
TOMASELLI: The proportion of turkey and pork is much smaller than chicken. It’s mostly fed to chickens.
CURWOOD: But what are the health effects for humans who eat chickens who have been fed arsenic in their feed?
TOMASELLI: Inorganic arsenic can cause cancer, heart disease, decreased intellectual function and many other problems. Now the amount of arsenic residue in the chickens is not going to directly cause cancer - what it does is it increases the overall arsenic burden that humans suffer from drinking water, eating rice and all the other exposure so we have to arsenic. At one time, they thought that organic arsenic was not as dangerous as inorganic arsenic. But recent studies that shown that organic arsenic, the kind that feed additives are made out of, converts to inorganic arsenic both in the gut of a chicken and in the gut of a human, and so now we're finding that these arsenic-based feed additives are actually exposing humans to inorganic arsenic, which is a known carcinogen.
CURWOOD: So tell me about the petition you filed back in 2009.
TOMASELLI: In 2009, the Center for Food Safety, along with the Institute on Agriculture and Trade Policy, filed a citizen petition with the Food and Drug Administration. The ask was that the FDA immediately withdraw all approvals of arsenic-based feed additives for use in animal agriculture. This was based on a report that the institute put out in 2006. It showed that the majority of supermarket chicken had arsenic residues in it and 100 percent of fast-food chicken that they tested had arsenic residues in it. We took this data and we asked the FDA to ban arsenic-based feed additives because of these arsenic residues’ potential burden on human health.
CURWOOD: And what was the response from the FDA?
TOMASELLI: It's been 3 1/2 years and the FDA has not responded to the petition, which is why we filed a lawsuit asking them to immediately respond to the petition. Should they deny the petition then we would consider filing an additional lawsuit for their failure to grant this citizen petition.
CURWOOD: What does the FDA say in response to your original petition and now this effort in court to get them to respond to it? Why so much delay? Why the silence?
TOMASELLI: The FDA hasn't said anything to us as far as the petition is concerned. They have made statements in the media that they're reviewing the evidence. At this point they haven't done anything to respond to the petition, and there's been several significant events over the course of the past couple of years that show the immediate need for them to respond to this petition.
CURWOOD: And what are those events?
TOMASELLI: Well, in 2011, the FDA tested chicken treated with Roxarsone, which is one of the arsenic-based feed additives. They tested the liver, not the muscle meat most people eat, however, the study concluded that the levels of inorganic arsenic were significantly higher for chickens treated with arsenic than those that were not. Shortly after, in June 2011, Pfizer announced that it would suspend - not revoke, just suspend - the sales of Roxarsone. And as far as we know, the decision to suspend is under internal review. And of course, there’s that recent study that came out showing that the muscle meat actually contains inorganic arsenic as well.
CURWOOD: Tell us about the study out of Johns Hopkins. What actually were their findings, and how that does that influence what you're doing?
TOMASELLI: So the Center for a Livable Future tested chicken muscle - so that’s what people eat, mostly, chicken breast, chicken thigh - and results show that there is an increased risk of bladder and lung cancer. Additional people each year will get certain cancers if all chickens are fed arsenic-based feed additives.
CURWOOD: What is the level of risk here?
TOMASELLI: If people in the United States only ate chicken and it was their only exposure to inorganic arsenic, then there might be an insignificant risk. But the fact of the matter is Americans are exposed to arsenic in a variety of places. They’re exposed in water, they’re exposed because wood was treated with arsenic, they’re exposed in the foods that they eat. So this significantly increases the overall arsenic burden on the population, therefore exposing them to additional cancers.
CURWOOD: So tell me, Paige, why do you think the FDA has been stonewalling you on this for the past three years?
TOMASELLI: I think that there's a lot of industry pressure from the pharmaceutical companies on FDA not to completely ban certain feed additives. Part of the problem is that FDA not only has to deal with the pharmaceutical companies, but they’re also dealing with the factory farming industry that would prefer to have access to all kinds of antimicrobials and antibiotics in order to increase their bottom line. So at the end of the day, this is an effort to continue to promote factory farming.
CURWOOD: So, what advice do you have for consumers about eating chicken?
TOMASELLI: If you purchase organic chicken, you're not going to be exposed to additional arsenics. So my advice is to choose organic or to choose arsenic-free or antibiotic-free chicken at this point.
CURWOOD: Paige Tomaselli is an attorney with the Center for Food Safety. Thanks so much for joining us.
TOMASELLI: Thank you.
CURWOOD: We contacted the FDA for comment. The agency replied, "FDA continues to investigate all uses of arsenic-based drugs in food-producing animals and will take the appropriate action to protect public health."
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