Maryland: First State to Ban Arsenic in Chicken Feed

As of January 1, Maryland is the first state to ban additives in chicken feed that contain arsenic.

You wouldn’t expect arsenic to be in food given to chickens (and sometimes pigs), but it’s in a drug called Roxarsone, which is used to control the spread of diseases in factory farms (caused by overcrowding and other inhumane conditions). And it makes chicken an appetizing shade of pink.

The drug is linked to elevated levels of arsenic in the livers of treated chickens, which can be consumed by humans, and they release some 30,000 pounds of the known carcinogen into Maryland’s soil and waterways.

"I’m glad common sense prevailed and the General Assembly stood up to the lobbyists and passed the ban this year," says Tom Hucker, the Montgomery County Democrat who advocated the ban for three years. Poultry and pharmaceutical interests fought the ban.

The law anticipates possible federal action. Roxarsone is under review by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and some poultry producers, including Perdue Farms, have discontinued its use. Pfizer, which manufactures the drug, pulled it from the market last year.

But if the FDA decides the drug is safe for chickens, it could lift the ban. The agency is widely known for taking little, if any action, on a wide range of issues under its watch. 

Among the other yummy items routinely fed to chickens in factory farms are banned antibiotics (proven to breed antibiotic-resistant "superbugs" in humans); antihistamine (the active ingredient of Benadryl) and acetaminophen (the active ingredient in Tylenol). Samples from China contain an antidepressant that’s the active ingredient in Prozac. These drugs help chickens "relax" in the high stress environment, because stressed chickens have tougher meat and grow more slowly, says Nicholas Kristof in a NY Times Blog.

"I used to be skeptical of organic, but the more reporting I do on our food supply, the more I want my own family eating organic – just to be safe," he says.

Read: The FDA Is Out to Lunch:

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