Maryland is about to become the first state in the country to ban the practice of adding arsenic to chicken feed, now that a 2012 bill passed by the state legislature has gone into effect. The ban, implemented on January 1, 2013, will protect Maryland's drinking water supplies and the environmentally sensitive Chesapeake Bay from a toxic chemical linked to cancer, heart disease, and diabetes in humans, as well as reproductive problems in animals.
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Though arsenic can exist in everything from drinking water to brown rice, meat and poultry are some of the leading sources of dietary exposure. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has found that nearly half of all chickens tested have absorbed inorganic arsenic, the most toxic form, in their liver. Based on that finding, the agency asked Pfizer to stop manufacturing Roxarsone, the arsenic-containing drug that's added to feed to fatten chickens and give meat a bright pink hue. Pfizer did suspend sale of the drug in the U.S. but still sells it to chicken producers abroad, and public health advocates fear that the company could decide to resume sales in the U.S. at any time. Other drug companies continue to produce and sell arsenic-containing feed additives, as well.
"Many in the public health community are uncomfortable with industry self-regulating. This drug can come back," Keeve Nachman, PhD, assistant scientist and director of the Farming for the Future program at Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, told Rodale.com.
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In Maryland, at least, the industry can self-regulate no more. Farmers had been stockpiling feed containing Roxarsone ever since the sale of the drug was suspended, and those living in the country's eighth-largest chicken-producing state will have to now do away with all that feed. In addition to being toxic to humans, arsenic in chicken waste has become an environmental headache. The state's poultry industry produces 650 million pounds of chicken manure, or litter, each year, and though some of it is sold as fertilizer, much of washes into the Chesapeake Bay. The state's oyster and crab fisheries have suffered significant losses due to chicken-litter pollution.
Despite the positive step towards less chemically contaminated chicken, Maryland's ban will only go so far in helping people avoid carcinogens in meat. Meat is rarely labeled as to which state it's source from, and the top chicken-producing states—Georgia, Arkansas, Alabama, Mississippi, and North Carolina—don't show any signs of enacting a similar ban on arsenic in chicken feed. Furthermore, factory-farmed chicken have tested positive for banned antibiotics, used to speed growth, and antihistamines, caffeine and antidepressants, all used to keep chickens awake and eating more food.