Tainted Feed

By Sapna E. Thottathil, PhD and Lucia Sayre, MA, Health Care Without Harm's Healthy Food in Health Care Program and the San Francisco Bay Chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility on November 27, 2013

Health care’s role in banning arsenic in animal agriculture.

Arsenic is a naturally occurring element in the Earth’s crust and can be found throughout our environment in the air, land, and water. However, when combined with other elements besides carbon, inorganic arsenic can be harmful to human health. Chronic exposure to inorganic arsenic can lead to adverse health effects, including several types of cancer, body systems’ failures, developmental defects, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and many other types of illnesses.1 While sources of drinking water, soil, and food staples such as rice and shellfish can become contaminated naturally with inorganic arsenic, mining and industrial operations, as well as tobacco smoke, pollute the environment with the element.

For decades, communities in the U.S. were also being exposed to inorganic arsenic through another medium: poultry production. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) historically allowed the routine use of inorganic arsenic in poultry feed, for the purposes of growth promotion and feed efficiency, as an antimicrobial agent, and to give the bird meat an artificial pink hue for aesthetics. According to estimates, nearly 70 percent of the broiler chickens raised annually (over nine billion birds in 2008) were typically fed arsenic.2 This is a practice that has never been approved as safe or necessary in several countries of the European Union.

Arsenic residues have been found in broiler meat, and as arsenic is passed through the birds, it has ended up back on agricultural fields in the form of fertilizer. Run-off from poultry production has also led to the contamination of water supplies.

The FDA Withdraws Approvals of Arsenicals after Pressured by Health Care Groups

For years, health professionals decried the unnecessary increase of inorganic arsenic levels in the environment and the food supply as a result of agricultural practices. Four years ago, a group of organizations, including Health Care Without Harm and the Oregon and San Francisco chapters of Physicians for Social Responsibility, brought forth a citizen petition to the FDA to remove arsenic from animal agriculture. When the FDA did not respond, they filed a lawsuit in the spring of 2013.

In September 2013, the FDA finally reacted, and announced that it will withdraw 98 of 101 approvals given to arsenic-based animal drugs, which covers three of the four arsenic-containing compounds approved for animal feed. The FDA’s momentous decision around these chemical additives would have been unlikely to occur without the advocacy efforts by the health care sector.

Health Care Support Leads to a 2012 Arsenic Ban in Poultry in Maryland

The FDA’s decision and the key role that the health care sector played in banning most arsenic-containing compounds from animal agriculture on the national scale was not without precedent. Health care professionals in Maryland took action just a year earlier, to ban arsenic in poultry production throughout the entirety of the state.

The small state of Maryland produces a large number of broiler chickens, over 300 million on an annual basis, making it the eighth largest poultry producer in the U.S.3 Many of its poultry farms are located on the Eastern shore of the state, along the Chesapeake Bay, the largest estuary in the country.

Unfortunately, the environmental health of the Chesapeake Bay has been deteriorating for years. One significant source of pollution has been waste run-off from poultry farms, full of nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous, leading to algae blooms within the body of water. Another pollutant has historically been arsenic. Researchers found that arsenic routinely fed to chickens was being excreted in their waste, which was running off from farms and contaminating and accumulating in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

Given the environmental footprint of poultry production, as well as emerging evidence that there were higher levels of arsenic in chicken meat that had been raised with the chemical element,4 the government of Maryland adopted a ban on arsenic additives in chicken feed in the spring of 2012.

The collective voice of the health care and public health communities helped lead to this ban, through a long-running legislative battle. 2012 had been the third consecutive year that the state legislature considered prohibiting arsenic use in poultry production Maryland. The American Academy of Pediatrics-Maryland Chapter, Baltimore Medical System, Carroll Hospital Center, the Maryland Dietetic Association, the Maryland Nurses Association, MedChi-the Maryland State Medical Society, and Union Hospital of Cecil County all publicly supported the arsenic ban.

Carroll Hospital Center and Union Hospital of Cecil County had also been procuring local and arsenic-free poultry for Thanksgiving and National Nutrition Month in March for a few years by then, in support of sustainable meat production within the state. According to Louise Mitchell, the Health Care Without Harm Healthy Food in Health Care state coordinator in Maryland, "these hospitals were already doing work on sustainable purchasing, and when they learned about arsenic, they reached out to their suppliers to make changes in the poultry they were serving in their facilities." Procurement efforts by these hospitals helped lead to increasing awareness about inorganic arsenic, and the eventual legislative change within the state.

How you can help and stay involved:

To learn more about arsenic, read Health Care Without Harm’s fact sheet, Feeding Arsenic to Poultry, is this Good Medicine? www.noharm.org/lib/downloads/food/Feeding_Arsenic_to_Poultry.pdf

If you are in hospital food service, check out Health Care Without Harm’s Guide to Eco-Labels: www.noharm.org/lib/downloads/food/Poultry_Eco-Labels.pdf

Another good resource if you are in hospital food service is Health Care Without Harm’s Guide to Sourcing Sustainable Poultry: www.noharm.org/lib/downloads/food/Purchas_Sustainable_Poultry.pdf

If you are a clinician, check out Healthy Food in Health Care’s Food Matters’ page, which has several educational resources about arsenic and other chemicals in the food system: www.healthyfoodinhealthcare.org/foodmatters.overview.php


1World Health Organization, Arsenic Fact Sheet, www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs372/en/

2USDA, Poultry annual slaughter statistics, usda.mannlib.cornell.edu/MannUsda/viewDocumentInfo.do?documentID=1497

3Maryland State Archives, Agriculture, http://msa.maryland.gov/msa/mdmanual/01glance/html/agri.html

4Nachman KE, et al., Roxarsone, inorganic arsenic, and other arsenic species in chicken: a U.S.-based market basket sample, Environ Health Perspect 121(7):818–824 (2013); http://dx.doi.org/10.1289/ehp.1206245.