Following the release of a groundbreaking U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) report back in 2011 indicting roxarsone, the infamous Pfizer-produced arsenical drug, as a high-level contaminant in conventional chicken meat, the drug’s manufacturer voluntarily agreed to pull it off the market, leading many health-conscious individuals to breathe a collective sigh of relief. But a new study recently published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP) reveals that inorganic arsenic is still prevalent in virtually all conventional chicken meat, as an arsenical drug similar in composition to roxarsone is still being widely used and fed to conventional chickens.
Entitled “Arsenical Association: Inorganic Arsenic May Accumulate in the Meat of Treated Chickens,” the new study explains how inorganic arsenic (iAs), a known human carcinogen, accumulates in the muscle tissue of chickens treated with arsenical drugs like roxarsone, the official brand name of which is 3-Nitro. The previous assumption was that these organic arsenic compounds pass through chickens unchanged and thus do not pose a considerable threat to human health. But the FDA study revealed quite the opposite when it found that roxarsone is capable of transforming into iAs upon ingestion, where it then accumulates in the edible parts of chickens.
Since roxarsone is no longer on the market, many people think that iAs is no longer a major threat in conventional chicken meat. But another lesser-known arsenical drug, nitarsone, is still quietly being used in conventional chicken production in the U.S., as explained in a May 11, 2013, piece published by The New York Times, which means that the threat is still present. For whatever reason, health officials have been slow to take a closer look at nitarsone, which exhibits virtually the same effects as roxarsone in treated chickens.
Nitarsone likely just as dangerous as roxarsone, suggests research, yet both drugs still have FDA approval
Like roxarsone, nitarsone is given to conventional chickens to help them grow faster and to treat intestinal parasites — conventional chicken farms are quite filthy places, after all. The chemical also gives conventional chicken meat a more appealing pink color, rather than the unappetizing gray hue it would otherwise have if left untreated. But just like roxarsone, nitarsone can contribute to elevated levels of iAs in chickens that eat it, which in turn can lead to eventual arsenic poisoning in humans.
For their research, the authors of the new EHP study evaluated conventional, conventional but antibiotic-free, and certified organic chicken meat for iAs. They found that cooked conventional chicken meat had the highest levels of iAs, averaging 1.8 micrograms per kilogram, while cooked organic chicken meat had the lowest levels of iAs, averaging 0.6 micrograms per kilogram. Worse, chicken meat with detectable levels of actual roxarsone had higher levels of iAs overall compared to chicken meat without detectable levels of roxarsone.
“Our study gives the FDA a clear rationale for withdrawing its approval for roxarsone and potentially other arsenic-based drugs in animal agriculture,” wrote Keeve Nachman, lead author of the study and director of the Farming for the Future program at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future.
If nitarsone is essentially the same as roxarsone in how it affects chickens, then it too should be pulled from the market for public safety. At this time, however, nitarsone is still available for use in conventional agriculture, which means it is highly likely that most or all conventional chicken meat is still being intentionally contaminated with arsenic. And the FDA has yet to officially ban either roxarsone or nitarsone, even though roxarsone is no longer being produced.
“[This study] provides FDA with good data about whether it should formally withdraw the use of arsenicals from chicken production in the U.S.,” adds Amy Sapkota, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland School of Public health who was not involved in the study.