Supersizing Your Chicken, with Arsenic

Earlier this month, CEH joined a legal petition to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), calling on the agency to ban poultry feed additives containing arsenic, a carcinogen associated with other serious health problems, including heart disease, diabetes, and intelligence deficits.

Spearheaded by the Center for Food Safety and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, the petition notes that arsenic in poultry feed additives can make its way into those who eat poultry, i.e. you, me, and billions of other McNugget eaters. The petition also notes that this creates a “needless and an unreasonably harmful” exposure to this cancer-causing chemical.

Now prepare to be shocked and appalled, because seventy percent of chickens raised in the U.S. are fed with one or more arsenic-based additives. And if that didn’t make you toss your Chicken Tenders, recent testing showed that nearly 75% of conventionally-raised raw chicken purchased in major supermarkets contained detectable levels of arsenic. In case you’ve eaten too much chicken lately, I ought to repeat that arsenic is a carcinogen and has been linked to heart disease, diabetes, and cognitive problems.

This use of arsenic is especially troubling because the average American is eating chicken like there’s no tomorrow. Today we’re eating more than 250% of the chicken that our parents and our chain-smoking, martini gulping forebears on “Mad Men” ate in the 1960’s. By the year 2000, the typical American ate more than 80 pounds of chicken per year. And it’s gone up since then.

As our consumption has grown, so have our chickens – even though the time it takes to raise them has diminished. It’s true: in the past 50 years, chicken farmers have been able to cut their feed use by more than half by bringing poultry to market weight in about half the time they previously needed. They’ve done this largely by pumping the little birds full of performance enhancing drugs – weight-promoting additives, primarily antibiotics and arsenic-based compounds. In the feed given to American broiler chickens, at least nine different antibiotics and three arsenic compounds are approved for use. In Europe, these antibiotics and all arsenic-based products are banned as feed additives.

So here’s a little encouraging news: recently introduced in Congress, the Poison-Free Poultry Act would ban the use of roxarsone, the most common arsenic-based additive. And in fact, our petition to FDA goes even further, calling on the agency to ban all arsenic-based poultry additives.

If you want to avoid these performance enhancing, cancer-causing drugs in your chicken, look for organically-raised poultry. Organic standards prohibit the use of growth-promoting antibiotics and arsenic-based additives. The Eat Well Guide also carries state-by-state listings of producers who have pledged to use no artificial feed additives, including antibiotics or arsenic. The guide also lists restaurants and other places to find old-fashioned, arsenic-free chicken.

On the other hand, perhaps these chickens will increase your homerun totals and give your agent some bargaining power in the offseason.