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.