The Center for Food Safety (CFS) and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) filed a petition with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration last week calling for a halt to the use of arsenic-containing compounds in animal feed.

According to CFS and IATP, the additives are commonly used in the production of poultry to increase weight gain and create the appearance of a healthy color in meat from chickens, turkeys and hogs. 

“The fact that arsenic–a known and powerful carcinogen–in these feed additives leads to arsenic residue in chicken is now well known,” said the CFS’s executive director Andrew Kimbrell. “FDA’s failure to investigate the mounting evidence that these compounds are unsafe is a breach of the public trust, and the use of arsenic-containing compounds in food animal production is a needless and dangerous risk to human health.”

In late September, U.S. Representative Steve Israel (D-NY) introduced legislation to ban a commonly used arsenic compound in animal feed. The Poison-Free Poultry Act of 2009 would amend the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act to ban roxarsone, an arsenical antimicrobial drug used to ward off infection in animal production facilities.

The CFS and IATP petition calls for a more comprehensive ban, one that would include Arsanilic acid, Nitarsone, and Carbarsone, all commonly used compounds that contain arsenicals.

“Arsenic can be poisonous. It’s use in animal feed, therefore is unnecessarily risky and has not been shown to be safe given the latest science,” said David Wallinga, M.D. of IATP. “To best protect public health, all avoidable exposures to arsenic should be eliminated. FDA can and should act.”

Many in the animal production industry, however, insist that the additives are a safe and necessary tool for producing safe meat.

“The use of roxarsone prevents the disease coccidiosis in poultry. In so doing, it enhances animal welfare, increases sustainability of production and can lead to improved food safety,” John E. Starkey, president of the U.S Poultry & Egg Association told Food Safety News in September.

“There are well established and well respected procedures in place at FDA to ensure the safety and efficacy of the use of products such as roxarsone in animal feeds,” added Starkey.

  • Activist groups routinely misuse science and the facts in order to make their point. The petition by Center for Food Safety and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy is no different.
    It should be noted, first of all, that “arsenic” is not added to chicken feed. What is added in some cases — but by no means all — is roxarsone, a compound that includes arsenic as one of its elements. Roxarsone is considered to be an “organic arsenical” since the arsenic is bound to carbon and oxygen atoms. It is not the metallic form of arsenic made famous by “Arsenic and Old Lace.”
    In farm animals, roxarsone is used to help prevent coccidiosis, a parasitic condition common to poultry. It also promotes good intestinal health and promotes the overall health of the flock.
    Because of its chemical nature, roxarsone passes through animals without being metabolized. Animals do not absorb arsenic from the use of roxarsone in their feed.
    Arsenic is an element naturally occurring in the environment and is found in water from weathering of rock. The Environmental Protection Agency has set an action level of 14 parts per million in human drinking water in recognition of the pervasive nature of arsenic. The Food & Drug Administration has set a tolerance level of 0.5 parts per million in poultry parts.
    Because it is in water and soil, arsenic is found widely in plants and animals. IATP’s testing of chicken parts purchased in only two metropolitan areas (Minneapolis/St. Paul and San Francisco) found arsenic in chicken at 0.0215 parts per million (21.5 parts per billion), which is about one-twenty-fifth of the FDA tolerance level.
    IATP’s testing merely found random traces of naturally occurring arsenic. Testing of rice, shrimp, flour, grape juice, spinach, peanut butter, and carrots would have found similar or higher levels, according to previously published studies.
    The bottom line is that roxarsone is a beneficial product that is used safely and responsibly in the poultry industry. Agenda-driven science does not change that fact.
    Richard L. Lobb
    National Chicken Council
    Washington, DC

  • Mr. Lobb,
    As you know, the EPA asked manufacturers of organic arsenic used in garden applications last month to withdraw them from the market. The reason was health concerns. So, now we have the EPA, acting on the latest up to date science, basically banning organic arsenic from use in the lawn and garden.
    And then we have the FDA leaving organic arsenic on the market for feeding to chickens based on the 60 year old science that was used to approved these products originally.
    Those are the facts. If you were to read the petition, you would also note the other science that roxarsone stimulates blood vessel growth, such as occurs with tumor formation (angiogenesis), that it can rapidly convert in soil, in chickens and in the body to inorganic (cancer-causing) arsenic, and that it may be a hormone disruptor.
    Bottom line: We don’t need arsenic in chickens, whatever the purported benefits. They don’t use it in Europe, and many producers here (like Tysons) don’t use it here, either.
    I am happy to discuss science and public health further with you here online.
    David Wallinga, MD
    Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy
    Minneapolis, MN

  • Eric Gingerich, DVM

    The legislators need to listen more to people like Mr. Robb who are backed by science and not to MD’s who see no difference between inorganic and organic arsenic compounds.