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Arsenic causes cancer even at the low levels currently found in our environment. Arsenic also contributes to other diseases, including heart disease, diabetes and declines in intellectual function, the evidence suggests. It’s also the poison of choice of one of the ladies of Murder’s Row in the musical Chicago. Fake murder, real poison.  So, why have we been feeding arsenic compounds to animals for over 60 years? Arsenic in poultry feed speeds growth without upping the total amount of feed, and helps give that rosy glow to the meat of chickens, pigs, and turkeys.

Monday night, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) responded to a four-year-old petition by the Center for Food Safety and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy regarding arsenic in animal feed. They were finally compelled to respond due to a lawsuit filed by the Center for Food Safety (CFS), Institute for Agricultural and Trade Policy (IATP) and seven other U.S. food safety, agriculture, public health and environmental groups. A study completed by the IATP in 2006 showed that 70 percent of all U.S. chickens raised for food were fed arsenic and tests of chicken in grocery stores indicated that half of it contained detectable arsenic. A recent Johns Hopkins study revealed that chickens likely raised with arsenic-based drugs result in chicken meat that has higher levels of inorganic arsenic, a known carcinogen. Since animal manure can also be used as fertilizer, arsenic compounds are also found in rice.

There are four arsenic compounds that have been used in feed: roxarsone, carbarsone, arsanilic acid, and nitarsone. The FDA will be removing the first three due to their sponsor (Zoetis and Fleming Labs) having already begun to withdraw the compounds and possibly due to pressure from CFS and IATP. The fourth compound will not be withdrawn, and instead will be further investigated. It is claimed by the National Turkey Federation to be the only treatment for a specific disease that affects turkeys. Ben Lilliston, vice president for program at IATP stated, “The actions by FDA and industry confirm what we’ve been saying for seven years, the use of arsenic in animal feed is not necessary and poses needless risk to public health.”

Ultimately, of the 101 drug approvals for arsenic-based animal drugs, 98 will be withdrawn. This is a good step forward in addressing one of the many complex issues of industrial agriculture.

The full report can be found on the CFS’s website.

Image Source: John Haslam/Flickr