Study Shows Elevated Levels of Inorganic Arsenic in U.S. Chicken Meat

Chickens likely raised with arsenic-based drugs result in chicken meat that has higher levels of inorganic arsenic, which is known to increase the risk of cancer.
A press release from Rep. Louise M. Slaughter
June 18, 2013
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Arsenic-based drugs have been used for decades to make poultry grow faster and improve the pigmentation of the meat.
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A press release from Rep. Louise M. Slaughter.

A new study by Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future revealed that chickens likely raised with arsenic-based drugs produced meat with higher levels of arsenic, posing a public health risk to consumers. Congresswoman Louise M. Slaughter (D-NY), the only microbiologist in Congress and a leader on legislation that would stop the overuse of antibiotics on food-animals and protect consumers from antibiotic-resistant bacteria in their food, said that the study should be a wake-up call to federal regulators.

“This study further highlights the danger lurking on our dinner plates and the ongoing refusal of the FDA to protect American families from that danger,” Rep. Slaughter said. “Whether it's stopping the routine use of antibiotics on food animals or ensuring that dangerous carcinogens like arsenic are not contained in meat, it's time for the FDA to stop defending industry profits and start protecting consumers.”

Read the press release from Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future below.

Study Shows Elevated Levels of Arsenic in U.S. Chicken Meat

Hub staff report: May 13, 2013

Chickens likely raised with arsenic-based drugs result in chicken meat that has higher levels of arsenic, which is known to increase the risk of cancer, according to a new study led by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future at the Bloomberg School of Public Health.

The study, published online in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives (see abstract below), provides evidence that the use of drugs containing arsenic in chicken populations poses public health risks.

Conventional, antibiotic-free, and USDA Organic chicken samples were purchased from 10 U.S. metropolitan areas between December 2010 and June 2011, when an arsenic-based drug known as roxarsone was readily available to poultry companies that wished to add it to their feed. In addition to inorganic arsenic, the researchers were able to identify residual roxarsone in the meat they studied—in the meat where roxarsone was detected, levels of inorganic arsenic were four times higher than the levels in USDA Organic chicken (in which roxarsone and other arsenicals are prohibited from use).

Arsenic-based drugs have been used for decades to make poultry grow faster and improve the pigmentation of the meat. The drugs are also approved to treat and prevent parasites in poultry. In 2010, industry representatives estimated that 88 percent of the roughly nine billion chickens raised for human consumption in the U.S. received roxarsone. In July 2011, Pfizer voluntarily removed roxarsone from the U.S. market, but the company may sell the drug overseas and could resume marketing it in the U.S. at any time.

Currently in the U.S., there is no federal law prohibiting the sale or use of arsenic-based drugs in poultry feed. In January, Maryland became the first U.S. state to ban the use of most arsenicals in chicken feed.

"The suspension of roxarsone sales is a good thing in the short term, but it isn't a real solution," said lead study author Keeve Nachman. "Hopefully this study will persuade FDA to ban the drug and permanently keep it off the market."

More coverage of this story in The New York Times.

Environmental Health Perspectives: Inorganic Arsenic Abstract

Background: Arsenic-based drugs are permitted in poultry production. Inorganic arsenic (iAs) causes cancer and maybe other adverse health outcomes. The contribution of chicken consumption to iAs intake, however, is unknown.

Objectives: To characterize arsenic species profile in chicken meat and estimate bladder and lung cancer risk associated with consuming chicken produced with arsenic-based drugs.

Methods: Conventional, conventional antibiotic-free, and organic chicken samples were collected from grocery stores in ten US metropolitan areas from December 2010 to June 2011. 116 raw and 142 cooked samples were tested for total arsenic, and 78 samples ≥10µg/kg dry weight underwent speciation.

Results: Total arsenic geometric mean (GM) in cooked chicken meat samples was 3.0 µg/kg (95% CI: 2.5, 3.6). Among 78 cooked samples that were speciated, iAs concentrations were higher in conventional samples (GM = 1.8 µg/kg; 95% CI: 1.4, 2.3) than antibiotic-free (GM = 0.7 µg/kg; 95% CI: 0.5, 1.0) or organic (GM = 0.6 µg/kg; 95% CI: 0.5, 0.8) samples. Roxarsone was detected in 20 of 40 conventional samples, one of 13 antibiotic-free samples, and none of the 25 organic samples. iAs concentrations in roxarsone-positive samples (GM = 2.3 µg/kg; 95% CI: 1.7, 3.1) were significantly higher than in roxarsone-negative samples (GM = 0.8 µg/kg; 95% CI: 0.7, 1.0). Cooking increased iAs and decreased roxarsone concentrations. Compared to organic chicken consumers, we estimated that conventional chicken consumers would ingest an additional 0.11µg/day iAs (in an 82g serving). Assuming lifetime exposure and a proposed cancer slope factor of 25.7 (mg kgBW-1 day-1)-1, this could result in 3.7 extra lifetime bladder and lung cancer cases per 100,000 exposed-persons.

Conclusions: Conventional chicken meat had higher iAs concentrations than conventional antibiotic-free and organic chicken meat samples. Cessation of arsenical drug use could reduce exposure and the burden of arsenic-related disease in chicken consumers.

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