About a month ago, Jeannie and Doug Naselroad of Cole Road began raising chickens for eggs in their backyard.
On Tuesday, eight tetra tints (referred to as Easter chickens for their pastel eggs) played a “game of football,” as Jeannie calls it, chasing each other for a bug inside their version of a football field — a homemade green chicken tractor.
Last week, however, the family received disturbing news from friends over the phone, and they began questioning the safety of the eggs, which the chickens will start laying in about a month.
The alarming news
On June 8, the Food and Drug Administration announced that Alpharma, a subsidiary of the drug company Pfizer Inc., is stopping the sale of 3-Nitro, or roxarsone, because it found that chickens treated with the drug had higher levels of inorganic arsenic — a known carcinogen — in their livers than those not treated with it.
Jeannie said she was concerned because she had heard from medical professionals that any form of carcinogen collected in the body can cause health problems. She wanted to make sure the feed she used didn’t contain the arsenic-based 3-Nitro, and she wanted to make sure the chicken she was buying at the grocery was safe.
“I want to know that I can buy good chicken in the grocery for my family that doesn’t have this chemical in it. That was my main concern,” she said after hearing the news. “Of course I don’t want to buy chicken with some carcinogen in it, I mean who would?”
The FDA study used 100 broiler chickens, which were fed either a medicated feed with 3-Nitro at the approved dose or the control feed for six weeks.
“Tissue samples were collected at Day 0, Day 3 and Day 5 (the relevant time point for food consumption),” the FDA website says. It stressed on its website that the levels of the inorganic arsenic found in the group receiving medicated feed were low and posed no health risks.
The drug’s suspension won’t happen until July 8 to give animal producers time to transition into other treatments and to make sure animal health and welfare needs are met, according to the FDA website.
3-Nitro, the drug in question, is used in factory farming to prevent coccidiosis (a parasitic disease that infects intestinal tracts in poultry) when used with other drugs, and it can also be used for weight gain, feed efficiency and improved pigmentation in chickens.
The FDA regulates the use of carcinogenic compounds in food-producing animals under the Delaney Clause, which says the FDA can’t approve any compound for use in food-producing animals if the drug has been found to induce cancer — except if the drug doesn’t harm the animal or if FDA-approved tests don’t detect residues of the drug in food from the animal. Because the recent FDA study found residues of the drug in the chickens’ livers, the use of 3-Nitro violated the Delaney Clause.
Austin Cantor, associate professor in Animal and Food Sciences at the University of Kentucky, said in an email that the FDA’s concerns and Alpharma’s actions are based on these legal issues rather than a perceived health risk to the public.
Harmful or not?
Cantor said that while high levels of arsenic are indeed toxic, some evidence shows that arsenic may be “an essential nutrient as well.”
“In fact, many required vitamins and minerals can be toxic at high levels,” he said. “So, in evaluating the safety of using roxarsone, it is important to examine not only what arsenic compounds end up in the edible portions of the chicken, but also the concentrations of these compounds.”
Cantor said in the FDA¿study, the highest concentration of inorganic arsenic found was about 9 micrograms per kilogram of fresh liver, and the average value for the 21 samples was about 1 microgram per kilogram. The FDA has previously indicated, he said, that the maximum daily intake of inorganic arsenic for humans shouldn’t go above 130 micrograms, “which is considerably greater than the 1 microgram in the example above.”
“The concentration of most minerals is higher in the liver than in muscle tissue,” he said. “In the present FDA study, the concentration of total arsenic in muscle was less than 3 percent of the level in liver. In the U.S., the chicken we eat is mostly muscle — we eat little liver.”
Drew Koslow, a biologist and clean water advocate for Midshore Riverkeeper Conservancy, said the drug helps chickens grow faster and has been used industry-wide. He said that the farming industry and its lobbyists have “fought vigorously” against legislative efforts to ban arsenic in feed.
“Personally, I think that they know that this drug roxarsone is not really critical to raising chickens, but they didn’t want to be regulated,” he said, referring to the factory farms that raise thousands of chickens in close quarters. “Usually we use antibiotics in infections … but to raise these chickens, they just give them antibiotics daily just to try to prevent them from getting sick, and I think that’s what industry is really afraid of, is people taking a closer look at their practice.”
Koslow said that eliminating the 3-Nitro wouldn’t be harmful to chickens, citing Perdue as an example of one large poultry producer that hasn’t been using arsenic in its feed.
“Chickens don’t need a carcinogen to grow better. That’s just something that industry thought would help them make a bit more money,” Koslow said.
Koslow said that because 3-Nitro is mostly used by factory farmers who put it in their feed to prevent disease because of the crowded animal quarters and to help their chickens grow faster, he doubted it would be in made in feed bought by smaller farmers like Jeannie and her husband.
Jeannie said she bought Formax and Purina Flock Raiser for her chickens. According to the list of ingredients given for their products online, neither contain the drug in question. She still found conflict with the FDA’s claims that small amounts of arsenic are not of health concern, however. She called those claims “baloney.”
“All the medical professionals that I’ve talked to tell me the same thing that arsenic builds up in your system, and even traced amounts, we’re not supposed to ingest it,” she said.
A larger problem
Jeannie said she stopped buying chicken from the grocery since she heard the news, but she’d probably buy it once the drug is discontinued. She said, however, that she disagrees with a lot of industrial farming practices.
“A lot of these big manufacturers, they put them in these cages where they can’t even move and they give them drugs … to get them as much money as fast as they can,” she said. “They’re not thinking about public health.”
The surge in factory farms across the country has caused concern amongst environmentalist groups and small farmers. According to the November 2010 report “Factory Farm Nation: How America Turned its Livestock Farms Into Factories,” by the Food and Water Watch, the total number of animals on factory farms in 2007 was 28,821,693, up from 23,783,767 in 2002.
The report attributed this growth to three factors: misguided farm policy that encouraged over-production of crops like corn and soybeans, unchecked mergers between large companies and lax environmental rules with low enforcement.
“The combination of these trends eroded rural economies, drove independent producers out of business and allowed the largest livestock operations to dominate animal agriculture in the United States,” the report said. “The manure from these factory farm operations pollutes the environment and endangers public health. Crowded, unsanitary conditions leave animals susceptible to disease, drive the overuse of antibiotics and hormone treatments, and can contribute to foodborne illnesses.”
According to the Food and Water Watch’s Factory Farm Map, there were no factory farms in Clark County as of 2007, and only two counties in the state — Graves and Hickman — had highly dense factory farms.
Jeannie said she didn’t know how to for sure trust that store-bought chicken after July 8 would be arsenic free.
“I think that we just trust (that) when we go in a store and buy food, that we’re buying something that’s good for us,” Jeannie said. “I just think it’s ridiculous that we have to even think about this stuff.”
Contact Katie Perkowski at email@example.com.