Arsenic in the chickens, revisited

We blame Frank Perdue.

In 2008-09 we made the connection between arsenic-laced environment and obesity in our post:
Does environmental arsenic contamination cause obesity by disrupting thyroid hormone mediated gene regulation?

There, we connected the increase in obesity rates, particularly in the South, since the 1980s — and that arsenic is throughout the southern groundwater. We singled out the lumber industry because, according to a family member in the southern lumber industry in the 20th century, arsenic was used to kill off native scrub oaks in order to plant loblolly pines for the paper and pulp industry — so arsenic is probably everywhere.   So – environmental arsenic everywhere combined with arsenic interference with the thyroid hormone gene regulation –and the obesity rates in the South.

And then, about a year later, Time Magazine did a piece on obesity in the South that basically blamed fried foods. So, we posted, “Things Time Mag Ignores In Reporting On Obesity In The Southern US” connecting arsenic in chicken feed, that ultimately ends up in ground water, with endocrine disruption, and obesity.  Arsenic is used in chicken feed, as we understand it, both to keep contaiminants down and to keep chickens plump.  As we said (in our comments):

Tysons and Purdue did for chicken what Calvin Klein did for jeans — took a generic product and branded it, and made it national. All of this started in the 1980′s — just when the CDC obesity tables show that obesity started to increase in this country.

With mass production, comes the need for cost reduction. Probably the need for arsenic in the chicken feed was because of overcrowding — with overcrowding, pathogens increased, hence the need for arsenic in the chicken feed.

And now, three years later, this issue is getting main stream media attention from a new piece in the NYT (paywalled), Arsenic in Our Chicken?

Yes, arsenic and more — like prescription drugs.

As far as the Prozac in the chickens, we aren’t opposed, in principle, to drug delivery using meat. In fact, we wonder if more drugs shouldn’t use this delivery vehicle.  Why not? assuming drugs can be dosed accurately. Perhaps the drug industry should feed animals even more drugs that can be delivered to the systemic circulation via eating meat. Or plants. We do object, however, to lack of labeling and package inserts with our roasters.  So feed the chickens Prozac pro-drug (or whatever). Just test and label it for accurate dosing.

The bigger picture is that what’s in chicken feed seems to be something of a mystery.  Industrial mysteries never turn out well. Plus, when corporations murmer “it’s a mystery!” [where the money went][what chemicals are in chicken feed][etc.] this is really code for, “we don’t want anyone to know.”

And so, the NYT article cites a recent study on chicken forensics — detecting what chickens have been fed by what’s in their feathers. This recent report demonstrates that chickens are fed abundant arsenic, Arsenic species in poultry feather meal:

. . .Arsenic was detected in all samples (44-4100 μg kg(-1)) and speciation analyses revealed that inorganic forms of arsenic dominated, representing 37 – 83% of total arsenic. Roxarsone was not detected in the samples (<20 μg As kg(-1)). Feather meal products represent a previously unrecognized source of arsenic in the food system, and may pose additional risks to humans as a result of its use as an organic fertilizer and when animal waste is managed.

Mr. Kristoff (of the NYT) writes that he and his family eat only organic chickens.  (Natch).  But what about that side of Whole Foods microgreens? The arsenic study states that chicken feather meal used as “organic” fertilizer may be a source of arsenic. So, even with organic chicken, could “organic” greens  fertilized with “organic” fertilizer from arsenic-laced chicken meal contain arsenic as well?

As we previously pointed out, the arsenic that ends up in poultry litter is used as fertilizer, and gets into the groundwater,


IMPACT: 2002-09-15 TO 2006-09-14 The use of the organoarsenical roxarsone, added to poultry feed to increase weight gain, results in elevated arsenic concentrations in poultry litter. This litter is used extensively as fertilizer in agricultural regions. Our project investigated the sources and sinks of As within an agricultural watershed in the Shenandoah Valley, Virginia, an area of intense poultry production. Our work indicates that roxarsone is rapidly biotransformed to As(V), which is then released to soil waters. We consistently detected As in soil and hyporheic waters. Arsenic was detected in surface water only after a runoff event immediately after litter application. In ground water, As detections were sporadic. Although both roxarsone and As(V) exhibit strong adsorption to soil minerals goethite and kaolinite, As does not appear to be retained in soils underlying fields to which poultry litter has been applied for decades. This suggests that As is able to bypass soil and aquifer sinks. The causes of this are unclear; however, competitive adsorption processes, complexation with organic matter, and particle transport may all play a role in controlling As transport in these systems.

Here’s a Consumer Reports link: Animal Feed and the Food Supply: Chicken and Arsenic

Here’s the WaPo Op-Ed and related links: A Deadly Ingredient in a Chicken Dinner
Why do our chicken, our water and our air contain arsenic?

Our consumer tip today: Trader Joe’s Meatless Meatballs. Yum!

You’re welcome!

Wait. Does soy have arsenic? How do you leach out the arsenic from food? Will a little 151 rum and flambé burn it out?