Are Chickens to Blame for High Arsenic Levels in Your Rice?

Rice farmers in Arkansas are suing chicken producers, claiming animal waste contaminates their fields.

arsenic in Rice

Arsenic in rice prompts a class action lawsuit against chickens. (Photo: Getty)

Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

Shortly after last month’s Consumer Reports’ bombshell that rice produced in the U.S. contained measurable levels of arsenic, and was found in nearly every rice product tested, lawyers have filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of Arkansas rice growers, saying the culprit is the poultry industry.

The suit, filed by Birmingham-based Hare, Wynn Newell & Newton, LLP names poultry producers Tyson Foods, Inc. and Pilgrim’s Pride Corporation; pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, and its poultry health division Alphafarma, among others.

We’re pretty sure this is a lawsuit that the industry will sit up and pay close attention to. The firm filing the complaint was also involved in the $750 million settlement from Bayer CropScience, for damages to farmers and others caused when Bayer’s experimental and unapproved genetically modified rice, Liberty Link, contaminated conventional rice fields in 2006.

So what’s the connection between chicken and rice? Plenty.

Arsenic is regularly added to chicken feed. It spurs growth and gives chicken cutlets the pink tone that consumers associate with quality. (The routine practice is getting some scrutiny, though. Earlier this year, Maryland’s Governor signed a bill banning the practice, and the state is the first to enact a law against it.) Unfortunately, inorganic arsenic can pass through the birds and wind up in the chicken litter (meaning: manure) used to fertilize rice fields. Growers say that fertilizer was sold to them without warnings that it contained high arsenic levels.

Feed makers aren’t the only ones named in the suit. According to Food Safety News, the finger is also being pointed at the poultry producers because they control the entire process.

“Although the big chicken companies contract the raising of their birds out to smaller farms, the rice growers say the poultry business retains title to all birds, feed and medication through the grow-out period,” and that “contract chicken farms must use the feed formula dictated by the larger company during the five to seven weeks it typically takes to get birds to the five or six pound weight required for slaughter.”

It’s not the first time rice growers and poultry producers have bumped heads in court. An Oklahoma lawsuit claiming poultry litter polluted the Illinois River watershed also included rice growers as defendants. That lawsuit was originally filed in June 2005, but no ruling was issued.

Arsenic is found naturally in soil and water, but can also enter the environment through poultry production, as the lawsuit points out, and through the application of arsenic-based pesticides frequently used for cotton production.

This lawsuit, however, is specifically about arsenic contamination that stems from poultry production. Scott Powell, lead counsel in the lawsuit, tells TakePart that expert testing can differentiate between arsenic residues that come from pesticide use for cotton production, and those that are linked to poultry production.

“It is possible to get the arsenic out,” says Powell. “For those farmers that actually had the arsenic on their property, the land will need to be remediated. It could run $500 an acre.”

In the meantime, don’t expect Arkansas farmers to stop growing crops.  

“Some farmers will look to alternative crops,” says Powell. “They might go to wheat, soybeans, and corn depending on the commodity markets. Is rice going to stop being grown in Arkansas? No. But there may be a reduction in acreage.”

Indeed, there’s some indication that companies like Gerber and Anheuser-Busch are taking a serious look at the arsenic and rice connection. South Korea has temporarily suspended imports of U.S. rice, and with nearly half the rice intended for export grown in Arkansas, it would seem this story is far from over.

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