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Research finds increased arsenic levels in poultry meat

May 14, 2013
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The study is the first to look into the concentration of certain forms of arsenic in commonly distributed poultry meat.

Feeding chickens with arsenic-based drugs leads to a higher concentration of inorganic arsenic in poultry meat, according to a new study from researchers at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future at the Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Inorganic arsenic is known to scientists as a strong carcinogen, according to World Poultry. This study is the first to look into the concentration of certain forms of arsenic in commonly distributed poultry meat sold in retail stores and the link between the concentration of arsenic and whether the meat came from a chicken that was given arsenical drugs. Researchers noted that the the findings suggest that the use of arsenical drugs when raising chickens is a serious risk to public health and indicate that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) should impose a ban on arsenicals.

The study examined conventional, antibiotic-free and USDA organic chicken samples bought from 10 different cities between December 2010 and June 2011. During that period, poultry producers had access to an arsenic-based drug manufactured by Pfizer, called roxarsone. The samples that contained residual roxarsone also had four times higher concentration of inorganic arsenic compared with USDA organic chicken, in which the use of roxarsone and other arsenicals is banned.

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Pfizer voluntarily removed roxarsone from the U.S. market in 2011 but the company can still sell the drug overseas and could resume marketing it in the United States, if it decides to do so. The company still distributes the arsenical drug nitarsone on the domestic market, which is chemically similar to roxarsone. Currently in the United States there is no federal law prohibiting the sale or use of arsenic-based drugs in poultry feed. The authors of the study claim that the withdrawal of roxarsone was a positive move but was not a solution to the problem.

The U.S. poultry industry reacted promptly to the report, with the National Chicken Council (NCC) claiming that the results from the study are deliberately interpreted in a misleading way. According to Ashley Peterson, NCC vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs, the presence of low levels of arsenic in poultry is not a cause for concern because the chemical is a naturally occurring element in the environment and can be found in soil, air and water.

Peterson explained that the study analyzed a small proportion of the poultry produced nationwide and the samples were tested before roxarsone was removed from the market in June 2011. The NCC accused the authors of the study of intentionally misleading consumers, World Poultry reported. Even if the results from the study were accepted as a fact, they have to be put in perspective, Peterson added. For instance, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has restricted the safety limit of arsenic in drinking water to 10 parts per billion, whereas the study found two parts per billion of inorganic arsenic in conventional chicken. There is no scientific evidence that such tiny levels of arsenic in the food supply pose any health problems, the NCC concluded.

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