Guess What Drugs and Illegal Substances Are Showing Up in Chicken?


Written by Richard Schiffman

In 2005, the antibiotic fluoroquinolone was banned by the FDA for use in poultry production. The reason for the ban was an alarming increase in antibiotic-resistant campylobacter bacteria in the meat of chickens and turkeys – “superbugs,” which can lead to a lethal form of meningitis that our current antibiotics are no longer effective against.

Antibiotic-resistant infections kill tens of thousands of people every year, more than die of AIDS, according to the Infectious Diseases Society of America. This problem is on the rise because antibiotics are recklessly overused, especially in the commercial livestock industry, where 80% of all antibiotics manufactured in the US end up.

Fluoroquinolone used to be fed to chickens primarily to stimulate their growth. But why did the banned substance show up recently in eight of 12 samples of “feather meal”, the ground-down plumage leftover from commercial poultry production?

This was just one of the mysteries uncovered in a study conducted jointly by the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future and Arizona State University. The research, published last month in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, uncovered a whole slew of other drugs in the feather meal that the scientists had not expected to find there.

Traces of the arsenic compound Roxarsone, for example, were present in almost all of the samples. Farms administer arsenic to chickens to turn their flesh just the right shade of pink that consumers find attractive. Yet, in June 2011, the FDA gave Pfizer 30 days to discontinue selling Roxarsone, a proven carcinogen. So why is it still showing up in our chickens?

Other substances that the scientists found include acetaminophen, the active ingredient in Tylenol, Benadryl, an antihistamine, even Prozac, an antidepressant. Farms feed chickens these mood-altering drugs to reduce their anxiety. Chickens are anxious because they are bred on overcrowded and filthy factory farms. Stressed-out birds develop meat that is tough and unpalatable, so they need to be sedated. Yet, chickens on tranquilizers sleep all the time and do not eat enough. So they are given high doses of caffeine (which was also found in the feather meal) to keep them awake at night to feed and fatten up.

So, here is the deal. We create hellish conditions for our livestock, then we drug them to keep them numb. Then we drug them again to wake them from their pharmaceutical stupor. Then we drug them to grow faster. Then we drug them so their flesh will look healthier. Then we drug them to withstand the disease epidemics that our overcrowding has created.

Then, of course, we drug ourselves every time we take a bite of factory-farmed poultry.

“We were kind of floored,” Keeve E Nachman, a co-author of the study told the New York Times. “It’s unbelievable what we found.” While Nachman says that the levels of arsenic and the witches’ brew of other drugs and chemicals in the chicken samples may not be high enough to harm humans, he is not betting his own health on it.

“I’ve been studying food-animal production for some time,” the researcher said, “and the more I study, the more I’m drawn to organic. We buy organic [in my family].”

Organic chickens are bred without artificial growth hormones and antibiotics. They are fed organically grown vegetable foods rather than the ground-up animal products – bones, feathers, blood, excrement, fishmeal and diseased animal parts – which their conventionally grown brethren receive. They are also raised free-range with plenty of space, sunlight and opportunities for exercise to keep them healthy. A 2001 study conducted at the University of Perugia found that chickens produced this way actually taste better than conventionally bred birds.

Yet, organic poultry is a lot more expensive to raise. While the market is growing steadily for organic birds, it still comprises less than 1% of the poultry sold in the US today (pdf). So, food scientists argue that the standards for conventional chickens and turkeys need to be strengthened.

“We strongly believe that the FDA should monitor what drugs are going into animal feed,” Keeve Nachman urged, adding that, based on what the researchers discovered, they had little confidence that the animal food production industry could be left to regulate itself.

Earlier this month, the FDA announced what looked at first glance like sweeping new guidelines on the use of antibiotics in livestock. The new rules, however, are strictly “voluntary”, and, while they do recommend restricting the use of antibiotics to stimulate growth, they would still allow them to be prescribed by a veterinarian for animals that are “either sick or at risk of getting a specific illness”.

Critics contend that the words “at risk of getting a specific illness” provide factory poultry farms a loophole big enough to drive a truck through. Margaret Mellon, senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said in a press statement:

“The outlined process appears to give the companies the opportunity to relabel drugs currently slated for growth promotion for disease prevention instead. Such relabeling could allow them to sell the exact same drugs in the very same amounts.”

Public interest groups like the Union of Concerned Scientists say the time has come for the FDA to stop proposing half-measures and demonstrate that it is serious about preventing a looming public health disaster. It needs to ban dangerous antibiotic use in the raising of livestock, and to conduct rigorous on-site inspections to insure that the ban is enforced.

This post was originally published by the Guardian and is republished with permission from the author.


Related Stories:

Superbug Meat: Factory Farms Weaken Antibiotics

Humane Society Exposes Pig Abuse in Walmart Suppliers

Stop Feeding Farm Animals Unnecessary Antibiotics!


Photo from Farm Sanctuary via flickr


Jim Ven
Jim Venabout a year ago

thanks for sharing.

Marianne C.
Marianne C4 years ago

Finishing that thought:

OVER-exposure to just about ANYTHING is harmful. Too much exposure to sunlight can kill you, too!

Marianne C.
Marianne C4 years ago

People, you can't blame everything on factory farming. There's arsenic in your body, anyway. It's an element in the environment. It occurs naturally in the soil, rocks, water, and air. It's normal for all animal life to take in a certain amount of arsenic just by virtue of daily life. Since it's a naturally occurring element, it isn't POSSIBLE to totally eliminate your exposure to it.

Too much of it in concentrated doses is poisonous, but the same is true of many elements: lead, for instance, or mercury. Inorganic arsenic compounds -- the kind of arsenic that combines with other elements like sulfur, iron, chlorine, even oxygen -- are the dangerous ones, and are not only poisonous, but carcinogenic.

Organic arsenic compounds are much less toxic, much less likely to be harmful, and are not believed to be carcinogens. You find them in many foods, including fish and shellfish, rice and rice cereals, mushrooms, and poultry, all of which contain natural low levels of arsenic.

Arsenicals have been used in medicine for at least a couple of thousand years. They are still used to treat your dog for heartworms, and to treat humans who have a rare form of blood cancer called acute promyelocytic leukemia, or to treat sleeping sickness. Prior to the introduction of penicillin, arsenicals were the best known cure for syphilis, and were also once used to treat psoriasis.

The level of exposure is far more critical than the fact that exposure cannot be avoided. OVER-exposure to

Angie V.
Angie V4 years ago

ughhh wow =(

Emily Drew
Emily Drew5 years ago

This is why the only meat I eat is lamb that my grandma raises humanely and organically on a huge pasture where the only thing they eat is grass and naturally occuring weeds, and some meat from my local farmers market but only from the sellers that let me visit their farm and see how all the animals are raised and what they are given to eat.

Stanley Rampersad
Stanley Balgobin5 years ago

The result of chemical, hormones and steroids in our foods, are men are now developing breasts, becoming sterile, sperm count is a fraction of 1950 levels. Children are being born with hyperactive behavior symptoms, learning disabilities, developing asthma, and adults cancers. Ban GM Monsanto in corn and soya, label food products, we have to protect our families from Corporate Greed.

Dale Overall

Factory farming is just bad news. It is not healthy and it is mass produced with so many additives and who know what included,

No I do not plan on going vegetarian or vegan soon despite all the insults hurled on these pages in the comment section at those of us still eating meat, fish, poultry.

Yes, it is true that organic veggies cost more and this is difficult for those on a low budget as one commenter stated here.

There are so many toxins used in factory farming and with the trend of genetically modified veggies and what not one has to be careful about what one buys to eat. A lot of chemicals being used for veggies still.

I prefer organically raised but not everyone can afford the extra cost-we pay less for all the hormones and crud put in via factory farms than less for food that is not raised or grown with additives/hormones.

Until Mother Nature has us eating rock pate instead of feeding on organic matter be it poultry, meat, fish and vegetables or we flesh eating tigers or bipeds, well I will go on eating chicken, quinoa and other organic matter.

Dale Overall

As for compromise as one person mentioned eating less meat, well I eat my quinoa (prefer red) and buckwheat groats otherwise known as kasha, eat servings of meat that are the size of a deck of cards and like to cook my food from scratch rather than buying the processed and factory farm raised meats, poultry.

Some vegans and vegetarians of course do not want any of us to eat any meat, dairy, poultry, fish or whatever including honey and if one wishes to avoid eating that, fine but when some scream invective and abuse at a person it is hardly going to change one's mind.

Jane R.
Jane R5 years ago

Disturbing to say the least. It would be nice if we were all able to grow our own veggies, riase chickens etc. Since it's not possible we have to rely on the government to see to it that our food is safe. They aren't doing a very good job.

Lisa C.
Lisa Ryan5 years ago

Thank you for the article! We live in a "let the buyer beware" world now. This is one of the reasons I have my own few chickens now. I also raise a lot of vegies, some fruits, have 2 nut trees, and enjoy it. I get to share with my loved ones, save some money, and help take some pressure off the animals living in factory farms. My hubby and I fish and hunt, and when I purchase meat at the store, I buy grass fed buffalo and grass fed beef. There is a growing movement to local food also. :)