Study shows elevated levels of arsenic in U.S. chicken meat

Chickens likely raised with arsenic-based drugs result in chicken meat that has higher levels of arsenic, which is known to increase the risk of cancer, according to a new study led by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future at the Bloomberg School of Public Health.

The study, published online in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, provides evidence that the use of drugs containing arsenic in chicken populations poses public health risks.

Conventional, antibiotic-free, and USDA Organic chicken samples were purchased from 10 U.S. metropolitan areas between December 2010 and June 2011, when an arsenic-based drug known as roxarsone was readily available to poultry companies that wished to add it to their feed. In addition to inorganic arsenic, the researchers were able to identify residual roxarsone in the meat they studied—in the meat where roxarsone was detected, levels of inorganic arsenic were four times higher than the levels in USDA Organic chicken (in which roxarsone and other arsenicals are prohibited from use).

Arsenic-based drugs have been used for decades to make poultry grow faster and improve the pigmentation of the meat. The drugs are also approved to treat and prevent parasites in poultry. In 2010, industry representatives estimated that 88 percent of the roughly nine billion chickens raised for human consumption in the U.S. received roxarsone. In July 2011, Pfizer voluntarily removed roxarsone from the U.S. market, but the company may sell the drug overseas and could resume marketing it in the U.S. at any time.

Currently in the U.S., there is no federal law prohibiting the sale or use of arsenic-based drugs in poultry feed. In January, Maryland became the first U.S. state to ban the use of most arsenicals in chicken feed.

"The suspension of roxarsone sales is a good thing in the short term, but it isn't a real solution," said lead study author Keeve Nachman. "Hopefully this study will persuade FDA to ban the drug and permanently keep it off the market."

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