Toxic Arsenic May Be in Your Thanksgiving Turkey
by Ronald White, 11/22/2013
In a previous blog post on health concerns from the extensive use of antibiotics in the large-scale livestock industry, I noted that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had finally withdrawn their approval for the use of three arsenic-based drugs used in feed for chickens, turkeys, and pigs to prevent disease, increase animal weight, and improve meat color. The FDA was finally responding to a 2009 petition from the Center for Food Safety and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy requesting the immediate suspension of the use of arsenic-containing feed additives used in food animals.
The response to the petition came well after results from FDA’s 2011 study of chickens fed roxarsone, the major arsenic-containing feed additive then still in use, found total arsenic in chicken liver and muscle and the carcinogen inorganic arsenic in chicken livers. The results of the FDA study were expanded by a 2013 Johns Hopkins University study that found higher levels of inorganic arsenic in both raw and cooked conventional chicken with detectible levels of the arsenic-containing feed drug roxarsone (sold as 3-Nitro®) when compared to antibiotic-free or organic chicken meat. The study also found that the cooking process seemed to increase the levels of inorganic arsenic.
Now the bad news – while Pfizer (whose animal pharmaceutical arm is now called Zoetis) withdrew roxarsone from the market in 2011 after the FDA study findings, FDA continued their approval for the arsenic-containing drug nitarsone (sold as Histostat 50®) used to prevent blackhead disease (more information here http://www.michigan.gov/dnr/0,4570,7-153-10370_12150_12220-26481--,00.html) in turkeys and chickens. However, a presentation at the 2013 International Poultry Scientific Forum noted that a recent outbreak of blackhead disease in nitarsone-fed turkeys suggested that the product was not as effective as previously demonstrated and found that at least one strain of the disease had developed resistance to the drug.
The FDA’s reason for their continued approval of this drug: they need to obtain and then evaluate more scientific research on levels of inorganic arsenic in turkey meat from turkeys fed nitarsone. FDA expects results from several of its own studies on this issue, as well as a response from Zoetis to their request for more information, by spring 2014.
Given the chemical structure similarities between nitarsone and the now-banned roxarsone, there is a strong likelihood that the FDA studies will find inorganic arsenic in meat from turkeys fed nitarsone-containing feed. So this Thanksgiving, there is a good chance that the conventionally raised turkey you’ll be eating will contain higher-than-necessary levels of toxic arsenic. Bon appetit!