Environmentalists and food advocates have complained for years about the use of arsenic-laced Roxarsone (aka 3-Nitro) in chicken feed as a growth promoter and anti-parasitic.
But it was only when the Food and Drug Administration did its own recent study and found "very low" but increased levels of worrisome inorganic arsenic in the animals' livers that the agency acted. Last week, the FDA said Pfizer, the maker of 3-Nitro, will remove it from the market in July.
The FDA test results surprised some who had believed all the arsenic was eliminated when chickens poop. This still concerns activists who argue that chicken manure, a product that is often applied to fields and gardens as fertilizer, could introduce arsenic into groundwater.
The FDA tests also confirmed suspiscions that the relatively harmless organic arsenic in the feed is being converted to carcinogenic inorganic arsenic in the animal's body.
The agency's deputy commissioner, Michael Taylor, said the data showed "very low but completely avoidable exposure to a carcinogen. ... We are pleased to announce that the company is cooperating with us to protect the public health."
Dr. David Wallinga, a physician and senior adviser to the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, has studied and written about Roxarsone issues for years. He says that a study he published six years ago mirrored closely the results that the FDA came up with this year.
Wallinga said he was pleasantly surprised to hear about the study and the planned removal of the product from the market, but he is still concerned about three other arsenic-laced feed additives that remain on the market.
He has submitted a petition to the agency asking for a complete removal of arsenic from animal feed in the U.S. That is already the case in Europe.
While the FDA stresses that the amounts of inorganic arsenic found in the chickens was "very low," Wallinga counters that "inorganic arsenic is a carcinogen and so any additional amount ingested increases the risk of cancer and expected cancers across the population. ... And there is no need to use it."
For consumers who are concerned about inorganic arsenic exposure, Wallinga advises buying chicken from farmers who you know don't use arsenic in their feed or from organic farmers who are not allowed to feed their chickens arsenic. Further, Tyson claims to have phased arsenic out of its chicken feed as well. Wallinga said his chicken tests a few years ago confirmed Tyson's claim.