Legislation in the state of Maryland is seeking to ban arsenic compounds from poultry feed.
Supporters of the bill say arsenic in chicken feed contaminates both chicken meat and chicken waste, which can end up in the Chesapeake Bay. They also say it increases risks of cancer, heart disease, and diabetes.
Some growers, including Perdue, have stopped using arsenic. But others fought bills in the General Assembly last year, saying it has been approved by federal regulators.
Arsenic is often added to chicken feed in the form of the compound roxarsone. While it is intended to control the common intestinal disease coccidiosis and promote growth, there is little evidence that it is necessary to support these functions.
Chronic exposure to arsenic has also been shown to increase the risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, neurological deficits and other health problems.
On the Delmarva Peninsula (Delaware, Maryland, Virginia) alone, 1,700 chicken operations raise 11 million chickens per week.
Researchers estimate that between 11 and 12 metric tonnes of arsenic are applied to agricultural land there every year via poultry waste.
Groundwater tests on both sides of the Chesapeake Bay’s Coastal Plains found arsenic in some household wells reaching up to 13 times the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) tolerance limit.
Arsenicals are widely used within the US chicken industry. A study by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy found detectable amounts of arsenic in 55% of chickens from grocery stores and 100% of chicken bought from fast food restaurants.
Originally approved as an animal feed additive in 1944, arsenic is regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration and the United States Department of Agriculture, with no one agency having the power to fully protect consumers and the environment from its harmful effects.
The FDA set allowed levels for arsenic residues in poultry in 1951 and has not revised them since despite the fact that the average American’s chicken consumption has tripled from less than 9 kg in the 1940s to nearly 29 kg in 2008.