Maryland Moves to Ban Arsenic in Chicken Feed

Chickens shouldn't eat arsenic and Benadryl. The 7th state has passed a bill to make sure they won't.

Chickens in a factory farm
Want some arsenic with your meal? What your chicken eats, you eat. (Daniel Pepper/Getty Images)
Megan is a sucker for sustainable agriculture and a good farmers market, she likes writing about food almost as much as eating it.

It was an unappetizing day for poultry eaters last week when a new study revealed that factory-farmed chickens and turkeys may be eating Benadryl, arsenic, caffeine, and illegal antibiotics in their feed to achieve farm owners' desired results. But for concerned consumers, something more palatable has just been dished up in Maryland: Governor Martin O'Malley is expected to sign a bill into law that will ban arsenic and related additives in chicken feed.

Passed on Saturday by the Maryland legislature, the bill will be the first of its kind in the U.S. It will make it illegal for farmers to feed their chickens with additives that farmers say treat disease in the birds, make them grow, and turn their flesh an appetizing pink color. According to the Washington Post, the General Assembly voted to specifically ban the use of roxarsone, a chemical that becomes arsenic after chickens ingest it.

A press release about the law cites the Johns Hopkins' Bloomberg School of Public Health study that threw the unsavory practice into the national spotlight:

"According to a recent University of Maryland study, arsenic-laced chicken waste is commonly used as fertilizer on agricultural fields, which then runs off into streams, rivers and the Chesapeake Bay, as well as contaminating agricultural land," says the release.

Concerns also pertain to health risks for humans. Arsenical drugs have been common in the chicken industry since the '40s, despite their classification as Class A carcinogens that cause diabetes, heart disease, and genetic damage. 

Though other foods contain arsenic—think 2011's Food and Drug Administration (FDA) verdict that arsenic in apple juice is safe—the arsenic in chicken feed is different: it's inorganic (as opposed to organic). According to a 2010 Environmental Protection Agency draft report, inorganic arsenic is 17 times more potent a carcinogen than previously believed. A 2011 FDA study revealed that chickens fed arsenic contain "substantially more carcinogenic inorganic arsenic than chickens that are not."

“This is a huge win for the environment and Maryland families," said Jen Brock-Cancellieri, deputy director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters. "Maryland voters should be proud of who they elected."

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