Tuesday, June 14, 2011

FDA Finds Arsenic In Chickens

"According to the Associated Press, the FDA has confirmed that chickens given the drug (frequently those destined for the low-cost supermarket shelf) do indeed test positive for inorganic arsenic -- just as the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy found back in 2006. Despite this earlier evidence, the industry had continued to steadfastly maintain that the arsenic could not and did not make it into the meat."

Farmers have for decades fed chickens an arsenic-containing drug that promotes growth, but after a government study found trace amounts of this poisonous carcinogen in chickens, its maker will suspend its sales.

Officials at the Food and Drug Administration said the amounts found were so low that chickens treated with the drug, called 3-Nitro, do not pose a serious health risk and will continue to be sold. Perdue and organic chicken producers do not use the drug.

“The presence of that carcinogenic residue obviously raises concerns, and it’s completely avoidable,” said Michael R. Taylor, F.D.A.’s deputy commissioner for foods. “It needed to be acted on.”

Pfizer, which makes 3-Nitro, also known as roxarsone, will suspend the drug’s sales in 30 days, giving producers time to find alternatives. The drug, first approved in 1944, kills intestinal parasites, promotes growth and makes meat look pinker. And since 3-Nitro contains organic arsenic, which is far less toxic than its inorganic counterpart, producers assumed that it would have no effect on people who ate the animals.

But there has been growing evidence that organic arsenic can change into its more toxic cousin. So F.D.A. researchers developed a way to measure inorganic arsenic in meat. They got 100 chickens, fed roxarsone to about half of them and measured levels of inorganic arsenic in their livers. Chickens fed roxarsone had consistently higher levels of inorganic arsenic, a known carcinogen.

Pfizer said in a statement that a subsidiary, Alpharma, would suspend sales of the ingredient next month to give chicken farmers time to transition their birds off the ingredient. The Roxarsone flap began after a new study showed that chickens that ate the Roxarsone-laced feed had higher levels of inorganic arsenic in their livers than control chickens. Arsenic can cause vomiting, stomach pain, diarrhea, heart rhythm problems, altered mental status, and organ failure as well as cancer.

Each year, the United States produces $45 billion worth of broiler chickens, the kind used for meat — about 37 billion pounds in 2010, according to the Agriculture Department. That equals about 80 pounds a year for each American, according to the National Chicken Council, which represents major companies like Perdue and Tyson. Georgia, Arkansas and Alabama are the biggest producers.

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.

About 90 percent of roxarsone’s use is in chickens, although the product is also used to a more limited extent in turkeys and swine, said Dr. William Flynn of the F.D.A.’s Center for Veterinary Medicine.

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.

“This is exactly the kind of thing we try to direct research efforts towards,” Dr. Flynn said.

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