On Monday, March 28, a bill in the Maryland legislature that would have banned the use of arsenic in chicken feed was killed. Since the introduction of the bill in February, a public controversy has arisen over this little-known poultry industry practice. The months of debate, culminating in this week’s disappointing defeat, force us to closely question what goes into the food that we eat and what we can do to make our food system better.
Why is there arsenic in chicken feed?
In 1944, the Food and Drug Administration approved roxarsone, an arsenic-containing organic compound, for use in chicken feed. This metallic element, a powerful poison, is used “for increased rate of weight gain, improved feed efficiency, and improved pigmentation” and “as an aid in the prevention of coccidiosis [a parasitic infestation].” These broadly worded designations that allow for widespread use. Indeed, the routine practice of industrial poultry producers is to dose chicken feed with roxarsone and other pharmaceuticals in order to get as much meat as possible as quickly as possible from each bird. But exposure to arsenic in humans causes cancer and may contribute to other health problems including high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, and impaired intellectual function.
What happens to the arsenic?
Much of the roxarsone fed to chickens passes into chicken waste, which is then spread to the environment in the form of fertilizer, compost, cattle feed, and incinerated waste. The arsenic in this waste can then contaminate water, air and soil.
The arsenic that doesn’t make its way into the environment accumulates in chickens’ muscles. When people eat these chickens, they consume arsenic. The poultry industry maintains that use of roxarsone is safe for humans because the arsenic in roxarsone is in a different chemical form from the type shown to cause cancer; however, it can convert to this more dangerous form both inside chickens and inside people.
What is the problem?
Given that arsenic is a known carcinogen and can be dangerous even at low levels, all possible steps should be taken to limit exposure. The use of arsenic in poultry production unnecessarily risks human health. Roxarsone is not necessary to raise chickens. Not every American poultry producer uses arsenic, and the practice is banned in the European Union. Unfortunately, there is no way to tell from the label of supermarket chicken, be it conventional, kosher, “all-natural,” or “free range,” whether or not roxarsone was added to the chicken’s feed. Only poultry that is specified as raised on additive-free feed can be counted on to be arsenic-free.
Where do we go from here?
The defeat of the Maryland ban, despite its support by environmental groups and concerned individuals, is a sobering call to question the ensconced meat industry and its power in government. In the words of a Maryland lawmaker, “this is an issue that makes sense to ten out of ten people,” and yet, common sense was not enough to ban an irresponsible practice over the protests of a powerful and profitable poultry industry.
By raising awareness about the issue, popular opinion against roxarsone use could lead more states to propose bans and put crucial support behind those initiatives. Public opinion could also pressure poultry companies to stop using a compound that has dubious benefits and well-known costs.
Pushing for change
Still, unfortunately, the roxarsone issue just scratches the surface of ethical, environmental and health-related problems associated with industrially raised meat. Industrially-produced chickens today come from factory farms where chemical and pharmaceutical food additives, including roxarsone, are the norm. Taking a closer look at practices involved in the production of industrial meat raises the question of whether we can be doing more to reach for higher standards that align with both common values and common sense.
My own questioning of industrial meat practices has led me to intern with KOL Foods, a company that provides kosher meat produced in a ethical, health-protective, and environmentally-friendly way. KOL Foods works with poultry farmers that raise chickens in pastures, eating grass, bugs, and additive-free feed, producing poultry that is healthier, environmentally friendlier, and tastier than the industrial standard. Alternatives to industrial poultry production, like those provided by KOL Foods, begin to break industry’s hold on our food system and offer opportunities for future change.
Our food choices have power to shape a more ethical and healthier world. We can write off the Maryland bill’s failure as evidence of the food industry’s unshakable power, or we can take it as a challenge to reclaim power over our own foods. By carefully considering what practices we support on our dinner tables and by raising awareness about practices we choose not to accept, we can change our food system for the better.
Amy Radding is an intern at KOL Foods and a senior at Yale University, where she is studying as much as she can about sustainable food. She prefers her arsenic-free, kosher, pasture-raised chicken spatchcocked and pan-roasted with lemon and rosemary.
Photo credit: TheGirlsNY via flickr
By Amy Radding, intern at KOL Foods