Arsenic is harmful and has been known to cause cancer. Arsenic is an element in the environment that can be found naturally in rocks and soil, water, air, and in plants and animals. When I had seen several articles floating around this week saying that it was in chicken I had to do a little digging. Many times when stories like these surface there is a good explanation behind it or a misunderstanding. I called on Dr. Wallace Berry one of our poultry science professors here at Auburn and asked him for his expertise.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has recently announced it will remove three arsenic-containing drug types used to treat food animals, including chickens. Altogether, the three drugs were used in formulations as feed additives, the most common being Roxarsone. Many think of Roxarsone as a way to “pump up chicken”, but according to Dr. Berry that is not the case.
Berry says that Roxarsone is made from an arsenic compound and some companies do use it as an anti-coccidial drug in chickens ( not to “plump up” chicken as the media portrays). When I researched coccidia I found that it is an internal parasite that if coccidiosis occurs that it causes diarrhea with weight loss, dehydration, and (rarely) hemorrhaging Animals who have bad cases may have problems with anorexia, vomiting, and depression. Death is a potential outcome. It was used to keep animals healthy, farmers go to great lengths to care for their animals and this is why the additive was used.
According to Berry we use similar arsenical drugs are used in far higher doses to treat heart worms in pets. Arsenic is a naturally occurring element so traces can be found in all living things. Chickens who are given Roxarsone go through a withdrawal period before they are harvested just like with any other drug or antibiotic the animal might have been given. Arsenic is cleared from body tissues rapidly so only very low levels, about like normal background levels can be found in chicken. Berry pointed out that even when people are intentionally poisoned with arsenic, it takes a high continuous dose to kill and arsenic traces are usually only found in hair and nails because so little accumulates.
When it gets down to the “meat” of the matter Berry stated that Roxarsone is being withdrawn, not because it is dangerous, but mostly because it is an old drug that is not very profitable and because of poor public opinion. There are newer anti-parasitic drugs without arsenic that the public is more comfortable with and that keeps our animals healthy. Do not be alarmed not every poultry company uses Roxarsone, and the ones that do use it don’t use it all the time. It is rotated with other anti-coccidial drugs to prevent the coccidia from developing resistance. Since the three will be no longer used in food thankfully we will not have to worry bout animals suffering from coccidia because a vaccine for it was actually developed at Auburn by Dr. Allen Edgar in 1952! The anti-coccidial drugs are not related to any human antibiotics so there are no worries about antibiotic resistance transferred to human.
So as I get ready to decide on dinner tonight, I am not going to shy away from chicken in the cooler at the grocery. I’m very thankful Dr. Berry was able to answer my questions and I hope if you hear about arsenic you will now feel more informed. Eat More Chicken!