Why Was Chicken the Primary Source of Arsenic Exposure in Children?

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What was the National Chicken Council’s response to public health authorities calling for the industry to stop feeding arsenic-based drugs to poultry?

“Dietary practices influence our exposure to pesticides, toxic heavy metals, persistent organic pollutants, and industrial pollutants….A diet high in fish and other animal products, for example, results in greater exposure to persistent organic compounds and metals than does a plant-based diet because these compounds bioaccumulate up the food chain.” Researchers at UC Davis analyzed the diets of children and adults in California to see just how bad things have gotten.

Cancer benchmark levels were exceeded by all children—100 percent of children—for arsenic, the banned pesticides dieldrin and DDT, metabolite DDE, as well as dioxins, and not just by a little. As you can see at 0:51 in my video Where Does the Arsenic in Chicken Come From?, researchers found more than a hundred times the acceptable daily exposure for arsenic in preschoolers, school-aged children, parents, and older adults, about ten times the acceptable levels for various pesticides, and up to a thousand times the daily dose for dioxins. Where are all these toxins coming from?

The number-one source of dioxins in the diets of Californian preschoolers, kids, parents, and grandparents appears to be dairy for all age groups, followed by meat, and then white potatoes, refined grains, mushrooms, poultry, and fish.

These days, our DDT legacy is also mostly from dairy. Dieldrin was created as a safer alternative to DDT, but it was banned just two years later, in 1974, though it’s still found in our bodies, mostly thanks to dairy, meat, and, evidently, cucumbers.

Chlordane made it into the 1980s before being banned, though we’re still exposed through dairy (and cukes). Lead is — foodwise — also mostly from dairy, and mercury is not surprisingly mostly from tuna and other seafood. But the primary source of arsenic in children? Surprisingly, mostly from chicken. Why?

Let me tell you a tale of arsenic in chicken. Arsenic is “well known as a poison by anyone who reads mysteries or the history of the Borgias, and with its long and colourful history, arsenic is not something that people want in their food.” So, when a biostatistics student went to the USDA in 2000 in search of a project for his master’s degree, he decided to look into it. He found a startling difference: Arsenic levels in chicken were three times higher than in other meats. His veterinary colleagues weren’t at all surprised and explained that four different types of arsenic-containing antibiotic drugs are fed to poultry—and have been fed to them since 1944.

“While arsenic-based drugs had been fed to poultry since the 1940s, recognition of this source of exposure [for humans] only occurred after appropriate statistical analysis of the data”—that is, after this student churned through the data. It was published in 2004 and expanded upon in 2006. The National Chicken Council (NCC) was none too pleased, saying lots of foods are contaminated with arsenic. “By focusing specifically on chicken, IATP [the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy] makes it clear that it is producing a publicity-oriented document focused on the objective of forcing [chicken] producers to stop using these safe and effective products”—by which the NCC means these arsenic-containing drugs. In fact, the NCC admits to using them but says we don’t need to worry because chicken producers use organic arsenic, “not the inorganic form made infamous in ‘Arsenic and Old Lace.’” Okay, so we don’t need to worry—until, apparently, we cook it. When chicken is cooked, it appears that some of the arsenic drug in the meat turns into the ”Arsenic and Old Lace” variety. So, the Poison-Free Poultry Act of 2009 was introduced into Congress, flopped, and was followed by the subsequent introduction of the Poison-Free Poultry Act of 2011. Did the second attempt fare any better? No, legislators once again said pish posh to poison-poor poultry. So, in 2013, a coalition of nine organizations got together and sued the FDA, and by December 31, 2015, all arsenic-containing poultry drugs were withdrawn. As of 2016, arsenic is no longer to be fed to chickens. The bad news is that without giving birds the arsenic-containing drug roxarsone, chicken may lose some of its “appealing pink color.”

In the end, the poultry industry got away with exposing the American public to arsenic for 72 years. “It should be noted that the European Union has never approved drugs containing arsenic for animal consumption” in the first place, saying, Hmm, feed our animals arsenic? No thanks, nein danke, no grazie, non, merci.

Europe has also long since banned the “urgent threat to human health” posed by feeding farm animals millions of pounds of human antibiotics. As you can see at 5:30 in my video, feeding chickens en masse literally tons of drugs like tetracyclines and penicillins to fatten them faster is a problem that gets worse every year instead of better and dates back to 1951 when drug companies whipped out the ALL CAPS in advertisements,  promising “PROFITS…several times higher!”, a dangerous practice the poultry industry has gotten away with for 68 years…and counting.


If you don’t eat poultry and are feeling a little cocky, you may want to check out my 12-video series on arsenic in rice before you gloat too much:

Think feeding arsenic to chickens is weird? Check out Illegal Drugs in Chicken Feathers.

And for more on the critical public health threat posed by antibiotic overuse in animal agriculture, see:

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

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