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Rice Growers Sue Chicken Industry Over Poultry Litter

Arkansas rice growers say chicken industry practices promoted by industry giants like Pfizer, Tyson Foods Inc. and other big chicken producers are responsible for the high arsenic levels being detected in their crops.

The growers have asked the Circuit Court for the Southern District of Arkansas for a jury trial to decide whether their claim that Pfizer, Tyson and half a dozen other poultry companies is justified. The growers blame those defendants for the high levels of arsenic found in rice grown in Arkansas waters.

The federal lawsuit was filed just a few days after both Consumer Reports and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released data showing that white rice grown in Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri and Texas may contain arsenic at levels that are too high for some, especially children.

Arsenic is naturally occurring, and while safe levels have been set for water by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), no safety limit for foods like rice and apple juice has ever been set by FDA.

Plaintiffs John Alter, Kenneth Graves and Mark and Joyce Hargrove have sued on behalf of themselves and other rice growers, claiming that arsenic in a poultry feed component that ends up in poultry litter is contaminating Arkansas rice crops.

Pfizer Inc.’s animal feed additive business, known as Alpharma, is accused of selling arsenic-containing compounds such as a product called “3-Nitro,” used in chicken feed to spur the growth of chickens and prevent an intestinal disease called coccidiosis.

The product contains organic arsenic that the rice growers’ say passes through chickens into their litter.

Poultry litter is a mixture of chicken manure, feathers and bedding materials left over after chickens are sent to slaughter. The lawsuit says Arkansas farmers, including rice growers, have traditionally used poultry litter to fertilize their fields.

‘Most scientists and government agencies recognized “3-Nitro” to be highly toxic to humans and to be a recognized source of arsenic poisoning which can lead to various human health diseases and complications,” says the rice growers’ complaint.

In addition to Pfizer and Tyson, the Arkansas rice growers have sued Pilgrim’s Pride, George’s Farm, George’s Processing, George’s Inc. and Peterson Farms Inc.

Several named in the rice growers’ lawsuit were also defendants in the 2005 to 2010 litigation brought by the State of Oklahoma against the poultry industry over the use of poultry litter in the one-million-acre Illinois River basin. No ruling has ever been issued in that case.

Like the Oklahoma lawsuit, the Arkansas complaint charges that poultry companies control every aspect of the growth and production of eggs, chicks and chickens including pullets, breeders and broilers.

The rice growers say the “vertically-integrated system” gives chicken companies like Tyson complete control over “every stage of poultry production, including, but not limited to: breeder farms, hatcheries, grow out farms, feed mills, processing plants, distribution centers and pet food.”

Although the big chicken companies contract the raising of their birds out to smaller farms, the rice growers say the poultry business retains title to all birds, feed and medication through the grow-out period.

The rice growers say the contract chicken farms must use the feed formula dictated by the larger company during the five to seven weeks it typically takes to get birds to the five or six pound weight required for slaughter. The chicken house is then cleaned and disinfected for the next chicks.

As for rice, the growers say their business is commodity-based, meaning excessive arsenic levels could contaminated the entire U.S. crop. Arsenic contamination threatens U.S. rice growers with devastating financial losses, they say.

The five-count complaint includes a request for certification as a class action and also requests punitive damages.

Tyson spokesman Gary Mickelson said his company is still reviewing the lawsuit, but added that: “it appears to be an example of creative lawyers trying to use frivolous litigation to extract money from companies that have done nothing wrong.”

Michelson says none of its chickens are given feed additives containing arsenic. Tyson plans a vigorous defense.

In addition to the Oklahoma lawsuit, poultry practices are also being tested in a current trial in federal court in Baltimore where a New York environmental group has sued a Maryland farmer under provisions of the federal Clean Water Act. A ruling in that case could come as soon as a couple weeks from now.

© Food Safety News
  •  If rice growers claim to already know that poultry litter
    contains a toxic compound capable of making their crop unsafe, why have they
    been putting it on their fields?   

    • The class action covers farmers who used the manure, and those who didn’t.  And you’re making an assumption that the farmers knew that their crops would be contaminated because of the chicken feed. Not sure that’s an assumption that would hold up. 

      In addition, the complaint states that since rice is a commodity product, rice producers who don’t use chicken manure on their crops are suffering economic damages because of the Consumer Report article about arsenic in rice. In other words, it doesn’t matter if the farmer used the manure or not: all rice growers are suffering economic impact directly attributable to feed used in chicken operations. 

  • And what about the resposibility of the rice growers to know what is in their fertilizers??  I believe they should have been paying more attention to what impact this was having on THIER product, instead of now trying to lay blaim on the poultry industry.   

  • James

    Fact is farmers know the N-P-K content of the fertilizers (sewage sludge, etc) that they apply to their fields — but generally not the Source of those nutrients. LOTs of industrial waste gets sold and processed into fertilizer formulations — with untested and unlabeled heavy metals and other dangerous toxic contaminants as “by-products”. These build up in the soil and can be taken up by the crop, later showing up in our food supply.

    Fact is also — chicken feed is laced with arsenic for production purposes. The arsenic then builds up in the soil from repeated manure applications — and some crops, such as rice, are adept at taking it up. 

    Rice growers are discovering similar problems on former cotton-growing soils — which are also a major source of toxins, due to the copious quantities of fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, etc that were routinely applied to grow cotton — one of the most chemically-intensive crops there is.

    Fact is — industrial agriculture is poisoning our farmland — all in the name of “cheap food” — and this is affecting a lot more of our food than just rice. Whose responsibility is it really??

    • http://www.webmd.com/diet/features/arsenic-food-faq
      Other studies have shown that arsenic content in soil is higher around rivers and may be related to soil texture. Clay soils have more naturally occurring arsenic.
      Because of its chemical structure, plants mistake arsenic for necessary nutrients and readily absorb it from the soil.
      Are there particular foods that it’s in?
      “All plants pick up arsenic,” John M. Duxbury, PhD, a professor of soil science and international agriculture at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., says in an email. “Concentrations in leaves of plants are much higher than in grains of plants. Thus, leafy vegetables can contain higher levels of arsenic than rice, especially when they are grown on arsenic-contaminated soils.”
      But because we eat a much lower volume of leafy greens compared to other kinds of foods,“arsenic intake from this source is also low,” Duxbury says.
      Rice appears to be particularly vulnerable to arsenic contamination because it grows in water.
      Arsenic dissolves easily in water. So drinking water has long been monitored as a source of exposure to arsenic.
      Because rice is grown in paddies, which are flooded with water, it can be exposed to higher amounts of arsenic than plants grown in drier soils, Duxbury says

      What a shock a 5 second google search can get you! If farmers don’t test for micronutrients, for ask questions about their fertilizer its their own fault…

  • Emily

     Lawyers for rice farmers ALLEGE arsenic contamination of rice came from fertilizer (it hasn’t been confirmed) and you are up on your high horse and off to the races with your usual farm bashing rant. Oh well, tally ho, tally ho!  That’s how we roll, isn’t it girls?

  • Tyson is the same company that has hired tens of thousands of illegal aliens and busing them all across the country to work in their chicken factories.

    • I guess we’ll ignore the fact that many used false/stolen paperwork that checked out…. No those illegal aliens didn’t do anything wrong right? Its always Tyson’s fault

  • Dan, Please look at this sentence, it hurts my brain.

    The growers have asked the Circuit Court
    for the Southern District of Arkansas for a jury trial to decide
    whether their claim that Pfizer, Tyson and half a dozen other poultry
    companies is justified.

    • ab

      Yes, its an incomplete sentence. Almost every article I read nowadays is unedited. Or rather the editing is left to the automatic spell check of the computer. The result is odd prepositions and incomplete or meaningless sentences which we, the reader, must reread and guess as to the intended meaning. Many readers just scan the article, catch a few key words, form an opinion and move on. The public is thus amazingly uninformed, and mostly seems not to care.

  • Aggie

    does the contamination extend to organic rice as well?

  • Shelley youre making the assumption that they didn’t know, or that they didn’t take that risk. Not all producers are suffering, and the “suffering” can hardly be proven since prices haven’t fallen. Any producer in a locked contracted or arranged marketing agreement would be safe, and a lot of farmers have rice contracts.