Finally: American Chickens Will No Longer Be Fed Arsenic

Following years of criticism from food safety groups, the FDA has banned nearly all uses of arsenic additives in animal feed.

Arsenic-free. Well, mostly. (Photo: Vicky Kasala Productions/Getty)

Steve Holt is a regular contributor to TakePart. He writes about food for 'Edible Boston,' 'Boston Magazine,' 'The Boston Globe,' and other publications.

Four years. That’s how long it took the Food and Drug Administration to pay attention to an ever-growing chorus of Americans concerned that chickens, hogs and turkeys are given feed laced with the poison arsenic. As much as 70 percent of meat birds raised in the United States are given arsenic as an addative to help the chickens put on more weight with less feed. Chickens, turkeys and hogs are also fed the carcinogen because it happens to impart a healthier pinkish color to the meat.

On Monday, the FDA announced that the licenses for 98 of 101 arsenic-based animal drugs will be withdrawn. The announcement came four years after the Center for Food Safety submitted a petition to the FDA to end the dangerous practice and filed a lawsuit along with the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, and seven other food safety, agriculture, public health, and environmental groups.

“The withdrawal of these harmful feed additives is a major victory for consumers and the health of our food system," said Paige Tomaselli, senior attorney with CFS, in a statement. "It is unfortunate that legal pressure from outside groups was necessary to spur action by FDA, yet in the end, we are pleased that FDA listened to our scientific objections and is now working to rid arsenic from our meat supply.”

The announcement calls for the immediate withdrawal of licenses for the drugs roxarsone, carbarsone and arsanilic acid, commonly added to the feed of food animals. The FDA acknowledged that several recent studies about the arsenic compounds in animal feed raised new safety concerns in a letter Monday. The FDA denied the petitioners’ request to revoke a fourth drug license, for nitarsone, saying more research is needed. In January, Maryland became the first state to banning the use of arsenic in chicken feed.

The extent of the poison's presence in feed may not be apparent to most farmers, Martha Noble, Senior Policy Associate at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, told TakePart in January. That’s because many farmers are contractually obligated to use chickens and feed provided by the industrial processors they work with.

“[Farmers] don’t have a choice about what feeds they use,” Noble said. “And even if they did have a choice, they don’t know what’s in it, because there are no labeling requirements in a lot of states. I don’t think a lot of these farmers would use the feed if they knew. But they don’t even know.”

CFS reports that arsenic-containing compounds were first approved as animal feed additives in the 1940s, and remained legal for use in U.S. chicken, turkey and swine production for years despite the European Union, Japan and many other countries determining the drugs were unsafe. With all but three arsenic-containing compounds now illegal in the U.S., Americans’ can feel better about what they’re putting in their bodies—even if the assurance comes decades too late.

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