Study Says Chicken Might Contain Poison
Mary Ann Childers Reporting
(CBS) CHICAGO If you eat chicken, you may well be eating something else you did not plan to – arsenic. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the poisonous element is in almost 70 percent of the chicken produced in the United States with approval from the Food and Drug Administration. That organization insists it is safe.
But as CBS 2 Medical Editor Mary Ann Childers reports, a growing number of critics are asking if we should be eating poison in poultry. Jamie Seymour-Newton prepares family dinners that include chicken frequently. She could hardly believe it when she learned the poultry she is feeding her family may contain traces of arsenic. "We eat chicken probably 3 to 4 times a week, minimum," Seymour said. Since the 1940s, many growers have put arsenic in chicken feed to kill parasites and help birds grow faster. Both the FDA and the chicken industry insist the organic form is not toxic. "The limits that are occasionally found are just incredibly infinitesimally miniscule and are no conceivable threat to human health," said Richard Lobb of the National Chicken Council.
But there is some evidence that the organic form of arsenic in chicken feed is at least partially converted in the birds into the inorganic form. That can cause cancer especially in the kidney and bladder, as well as neurological, cardiovascular, and immune problems. That is a concern especially because chicken consumption has risen from about 31 pounds per person in the 1960s to more than 81pounds in 2000. One expert, toxicologist Paul Mushak, believes no level of arsenic is safe under any circumstances.
"I'm not saying that cancer rates are up because of arsenic in chicken," Mushak said. "What I'm saying is that there are enough questions and concerns that one needs to be very circumspect." A recent report by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy tested 151 samples of raw chicken from Californa and Minnesota and 90 samples from 10 different fast food restaurants. The results – 55 percent of the grocery store samples contained arsenic. The results for fast food samples were far worse. David Wallinga of the institute said "it was always present in the fast food samples we tested. "
The highest levels in the test, 21 parts per billion, were in Perdue's boneless breasts. Among fast food samples, the test found over 46 parts per billion in Church's thighs. While none of these figures exceed the FDA standard of 500 parts per billion, many samples tested above what the EPA considers safe for our drinking water – 10 parts per billion. Those who conducted the study are critical of the use of arsenic compounds in chicken feed. "It's totally unnecessary," Wallinga said. "In Europe, for example, they are not allowed to put arsenic compounds in chicken feed." The reason is that chickens do not need the compounds to be healthy.
Some farmers choose not to use it. Joann Dickman raises 5,000 pastured chickens each year near Kankakee. They eat home-grown corn and organic feed, and no arsenic. "You don't have parasites in chickens that are raised in grass because of grass being a natural detoxifier," Dickman said. Seymour-Newton never thought about arsenic in food. But she does now. "I will absolutely start looking for brands that do not have arsenic in them," she said. This study, conducted in late 2004, was released last month. It was small and more research is recommended. Perdue told us that its own regular testing shows less than 10 parts per billion of arsenic in chicken meat and that it is researching alternatives to using arsenic in feed. Church's says it is researching its suppliers and their practices to find out why its chicken tested higher for arsenic. It could be related to the type of feed used or well water
April 5, 2006
Chicken With Arsenic? Is That O.K.?
By MARIAN BURROS
ARSENIC may be called the king of poisons, but it is everywhere: in the environment, in the water we drink and sometimes in the food we eat. The amount is not enough to kill anyone in one fell swoop, but arsenic is a recognized cancer-causing agent and many experts say that no level should be considered safe. Arsenic may also contribute to other life-threatening illnesses, including heart disease and diabetes, and to a decline in mental functioning.
Yet it is deliberately being added to chicken in this country, with many scientists saying it is unnecessary. Until recently there was a very high chance that if you ate chicken some arsenic would be present because it has been a government-approved additive in poultry feed for decades. It is used to kill parasites and to promote growth.
The chicken industry's largest trade group says that arsenic levels in its birds are safe. "We are not aware of any study that shows implications of any possibility of harm to human health as the result of the use of these products at the levels directed," said Richard Lobb, a spokesman for the National Chicken Council.
Chickens are not the only environmental source of arsenic. In addition to drinking water, for which the Environmental Protection Agency now sets a level of 10 parts per billion, other poultry, rice, fish and a number of foods also contain the poison. Soils are contaminated with arsenical pesticides from chicken manure; chicken litter containing arsenic is fed to other animals; and until 2003, arsenic was used in pressure-treated wood for decks and playground equipment.
Human exposure to it has been compounded because the consumption of chicken has exploded. In 1960, each American ate 28 pounds of chicken a year. For 2005, the figure is estimated at about 87 pounds per person. In spite of this threefold rise, the F.D.A. tolerance level for arsenic in chicken of 500 parts per billion, set decades ago, has not been revised.
A 2004 Department of Agriculture study on arsenic concluded that "the higher than previously recognized concentrations of arsenic in chicken combined with increasing levels of chicken consumption may indicate a need to review assumptions regarding overall ingested arsenic intake."
"When this source of arsenic is added to others, the exposure is cumulative, and people could be in trouble," said Dr. Ted Schettler, a physician and the science director at the Science & Environmental Health Network, founded by a consortium of environmental groups. Those at greatest risk from arsenic are small children and people who consume chicken at a higher rate than what is considered average: two ounces per day for a 154-pound person. The good news for consumers is that arsenic-free chicken is more readily available than it has been in the past, as more processors eliminate its use.
Tyson Foods, the nation's largest chicken producer, has stopped using arsenic in its chicken feed. In addition, Bell & Evans and Eberly chickens are arsenic-free. There is a growing market in organic chicken and birds labeled "antibiotic-free": neither contains arsenic. Dr. Paul Mushak, a toxicologist and arsenic expert, said that the fact that Tyson stopped using arsenic in 2004 is encouraging. "What that tells me as a toxicologist and health-risk assessor is that if a vertically integrated company like Tyson can do that then presumably anyone can get away from using arsenic."
But there are still plenty of chickens out there with arsenic.
A report by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, based in Minnesota, examined the levels of arsenic in supermarket chicken and chicken sold in fast-food outlets and found considerable variation. None of the samples in the study, collected in December 2004 and January 2005, exceeded
the F.D.A. tolerance levels. (The report is at iatp.org.)
Dr. David Wallinga, a physician who is the director of the food and health program for the institute, a nonprofit advocacy group that promotes sustainability and family farms, tested 155 samples of raw chicken from 12 producers and 90 samples from 10 fast-food restaurants. Chicken from five of the brands had either no detectable levels of arsenic or levels so low they could be from environmental contamination: Gerber's Poultry, Raised Right, Smart Chicken and Rosie and Rocky Jr., both from Petaluma Poultry. None of the fast-food chicken purchased was arsenic-free, but some had extremely low levels. KFC thighs bought in Minnesota, where the company's supplier does not use arsenic, had 2.2 parts per billion. The company would not comment on its suppliers in other states.
The report offers many caveats to the findings, cautioning that the results "are not definitive" because the sample size is small. The method used, says the report, "gives a snapshot picture of the arsenic found in those brands on that one day of testing." Dr. Mushak described the Wallinga report as a pilot study. "It was done during a limited time period, with limited geographical reach and a limited number of sampling, but the information they came up with is not that far afield from the other information that is out there," he said, referring to the small amount of research that preceded Dr. Wallinga's work, including the Department of Agriculture study.
Dr. Tamar Lasky, an epidemiologist and the lead researcher on the Agriculture study, commended Dr. Wallinga for taking the initiative. "We are at the beginning stages of understanding an issue that we, including scientists, knew very little about," she said. In the Wallinga study, the chicken from Perdue, Foster Farms and Gold'n Plump tested positive for arsenic and the companies acknowledged that they sometimes use it. Trader Joe's samples also tested positive for arsenic but the company said it would have no comment.
McDonald's, the country's largest fast-food chain, said it does not use chicken with arsenic but the test revealed the presence of more than incidental amounts. Perhaps the chickens were purchased before the company started demanding arsenic-free chickens a couple of years ago.
Because there are still many more arsenic-fed than arsenic-free chickens for sale, consumers can reduce their exposure by buying from companies that have stopped using arsenic, or by choosing chickens labeled organic or antibiotic-free. They can also remove the skin from the chicken treated with arsenic, which reduces levels significantly.
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company