FDA Admits Arsenic in Supermarket Chickens

Ah what a wonderful world we live in — a world where giant agricultural producers regularly feed arsenic to chickens. This, mind you, isn’t how they kill the chicken. No, it’s how they make them grow bigger, faster, cheaper. Administered in small amounts, arsenic is one of many compounds found in various drugs routinely administered to chickens in their feed. These same giant agricultural producers have maintained for years that the arsenic never makes its way into the actual chicken meat sold at the supermarket. It all gets pooped out! Or so they say. Yet if that’s the case, then why did the FDA recently admit that arsenic does, in fact, show up in supermarket chickens?

But WAIT! They say. It’s not at levels that are actually dangerous to you, the end consumer. Your chicken is still safe!

Oh really?

Back in March, Tom Philpott reported on the practice of feeding arsenic to factory-farmed chickens:

The idea is that it makes them grow faster — fast growth being the supreme goal of factory animal farming — and helps control a common intestinal disease called coccidiosis.

The industry emphasizes that the arsenic is applied in organic form, which isn’t immediately toxic. “Organic” in the chemistry sense, that is, not the agricultural sense — i.e., molecules containing carbon atoms as well as arsenic. Trouble is, arsenic shifts from organic to inorganic rather easily. Indeed, “arsenic in poultry manure is rapidly converted into an inorganic form that is highly water soluble and capable of moving into surface and ground water,” write Keeve E. Nachman and Robert S. Lawrence of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future.

Inorganic arsenic is the highly poisonous stuff — see the absurd and wonderful Cary Grant classic Arsenic and Old Lace, or the EPA’s less whimsical take here and here [PDF]. The fact that the organic arsenic added to feed turns inorganic when it makes its way into manure is chilling, given the mountains of concentrated waste generated by factory poultry farms.

Let’s imagine for a moment that we can put aside the environmental nightmare that is concentrated arsenic (and other pharmaceuticals) getting pooped out of millions of chickens and making its way into the ground water and polluting our water supply.

Let’s also imagine that the levels of arsenic found in chicken sold at supermarkets is, in fact, quite small — so small as to be harmless. Never mind that it is inorganic arsenic (highly toxic) rather than organic arsenic (naturally occurring in rocks, air, plants, etc.). Let’s just put that aside and play their game.

Let’s also imagine that every manufacturer of pharmaceuticals for poultry has pulled arsenic containing drugs off the market in response to the newest finding, and not just the single drug manufacturer in question, Pfizer.

I’m still left with a haunting question. Why does Big Ag continue to think that it’s wise to wait for potential consumer panic before ending obviously dangerous practices? Why do they wait for government agencies to force their hand before they abandon such harmful idiocies?

Last month, Tom Laskawy asked a similar question and shared his own observations. He wrote:

It’s no wonder that the so-called “ag-gag” bills remain popular among industrial farmers and their political lackeys. They can’t seem to let go of consumer ignorance as a key business strategy. With arsenic in chicken, the FDA, the USDA, and the chicken industry seem to care far more about the perception of having acted rather than the reality of ensuring all chicken sold in the U.S. is free from this toxic substance.

Consumer ignorance as a key business strategy. I like that turn of phrase, and it’s undeniably true.

It’s another reason why I wasn’t the least bit disturbed by the scene in Food, Inc. when we saw Joel Salatin’s open air chicken slaughtering operation. Yes, it’s mildly difficult to watch animals die when you’re not used to it. But this was out in the open, done quickly and mercifully, done at a natural human pace, and done in a way that was fresh and clean and full of sunshine.

No, what’s really disturbing is the slaughterhouse hidden behind cement walls, the one where we never see the insane and inhumane practices required to kill more than a thousand pigs every hour, the one where machines designed to aerate pig brains also cripple factory line workers who regularly inhale the atomized brains.

What’s disturbing is the hidden, dangerous, and arguably evil practices that continue and continue and continue — right up until the moment of public outcry.

(photo by heather_joy)

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I am a passionate advocate for REAL FOOD -- food that's sustainable, organic, local, and traditionally-prepared according to the wisdom of our ancestors. I'm also an author and a nutrition educator. I enjoy playing in the rain, a good bottle of Caol Ila scotch, curling up with a page-turning book, sunbathing on my hammock, and watching my three children explore their world.

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43 Responses to FDA Admits Arsenic in Supermarket Chickens
  1. Christina McKinley Snover via Facebook
    July 27, 2011 | 11:52 am

    Just infuriating!!

  2. Rebecca Albert via Facebook
    July 27, 2011 | 11:55 am

    Disgusting! Criminal!

  3. Jennie Minges via Facebook
    July 27, 2011 | 11:56 am

    I did. Like Oprah to ground beef, this news a few years ago stopped me cold. Nice reminder, Food Renegade.

  4. Natasha Soto Aguilar via Facebook
    July 27, 2011 | 11:56 am

    sharing this post!

  5. Carrie Bentley via Facebook
    July 27, 2011 | 11:59 am

    This makes me sick to my stomach!!

  6. Andrea Newman via Facebook
    July 27, 2011 | 12:01 pm

    Yuck!!

  7. Julia Kohli via Facebook
    July 27, 2011 | 12:03 pm

    Yikes! I’ve mostly gotten off the supermarket beef, really need to make the switch with chicken too :/

  8. Heather Hill-Cantrall via Facebook
    July 27, 2011 | 12:04 pm

    Who are they going to sell to when they’ve killed us all off?

  9. Lisa Rogers via Facebook
    July 27, 2011 | 12:11 pm

    GAH! No I did not know that. :( :(

  10. Patti Eugene Collins via Facebook
    July 27, 2011 | 12:12 pm

    I agree, I will share this, Thank you for sharing this on fb.

  11. Jamie Pease via Facebook
    July 27, 2011 | 12:26 pm

    this is why we raise our own!!!

  12. Michele Niesen via Facebook
    July 27, 2011 | 12:34 pm

    I raise heirloom poultry and I guess who buys most of it? The immigrants who work in the processors. Because they know what has happened there. They don’t raise an eyebrow over price either. I don’t know when Americans will get over their addiction to cheap food and expensive health care. Wouldn’t it make sense to be the other way around?

    • Diana
      July 31, 2011 | 4:59 pm

      Here! Here! You are sooo right. I’m on my new food adventure to get away from traditional medicine. It is expensive to eat this way, however, the quality of my life is improving dramatically, and spending less time in doctors’ offices gives me more time to spend in the kitchen, the garden, on the computer, whatever!
      I am feeling glad to be alive. How do you put a price on that?

  13. Trishee Standen via Facebook
    July 27, 2011 | 12:36 pm

    Shared, ty… I have been so clueless, but for the last month. :(

  14. Food Renegade via Facebook
    July 27, 2011 | 12:37 pm

    @Michele — That’s fascinating! It puts one more nail in the coffin of the “real food is elitist” argument, too.

  15. Michele Niesen via Facebook
    July 27, 2011 | 12:42 pm

    Exactly! and I try to be competitive with my prices for just that reason, everyone should afford good food, but they don’t expect them cheap. And it’s expensive to raise a slow growing naturally fed animal. and it should be. What do we think a 99c burger is MADE out of? ugh…but the immigrants buy them live–and they’ll do without something else to afford it. New cars, fancy addresses, $200 jeans–they could care less. But they won’t feed their family a factory chicken.

  16. Kristin Kapp via Facebook
    July 27, 2011 | 1:01 pm

    keep sharing. let’s put factory farms out of business in this lifetime!!!

  17. Meg Light Lewis via Facebook
    July 27, 2011 | 1:14 pm

    I heard about this a few years ago. Then talked to my FIL who sells eggs for a large company on the east coast. He claimed that the arsenic was an absolutely essential nutrient for chicken growth. I think he really believes it too. I was shocked by his response. I will keep buying locally pasture raised chickens and eggs.

  18. Valerie Daniels via Facebook
    July 27, 2011 | 1:30 pm

    Oh, dear. It just gets worse all the time. I guess it really is time to wean my family off the grocery store food.

  19. Elizabeth
    July 27, 2011 | 1:31 pm

    It’s appalling what they do to these animals. We recently rescued some breeder hens from the local Tyson plant (the tornadoes that came through destroyed the chicken houses so everyone was allowed to come get as many as they wanted). These hens came to us looking absolutely terrible: disturbingly large in size, mangled feet, almost no feathers on their backs… it was very sad to see. They didn’t even know how to act like “real” chickens. They finally got the hang of free grazing with our other birds and look completely healthy and happy now. I don’t know what they were doing to the chickens over there, but I know it wasn’t good.

    • KristenM
      July 27, 2011 | 1:38 pm

      Were they de-beaked too? If not, that may explain the lack of feathers on their backs. All the other chickens were probably plucking them off since they were confined to such small quarters!

      I’m also glad to hear that their health could be turned around. I’ve often wondered if that was possible.

      • Elizabeth
        July 27, 2011 | 5:31 pm

        As far as I can tell they aren’t de-beaked. I can’t believe how much they improved, either. I thought maybe we would at least just give them a good home for their last days (they looked really awful when we first got them!), but I never expected them to become completely rehabilitated. They’re even laying eggs with big orange yolks now!

        • KristenM
          July 27, 2011 | 5:32 pm

          That’s such an awesome story! Sad about the tornadoes, lucky for those hens you adopted.

        • Jenny
          August 2, 2011 | 7:22 pm

          De-beaked??? Do they actually do that? How would the chicken eat? I’m more and more appalled at each detail I learn. I’m glad to be vegetarian!

  20. Brenda
    July 27, 2011 | 1:42 pm

    how can they get away with this??

  21. Food Renegade via Facebook
    July 27, 2011 | 1:43 pm

    @Meg — It’s just like the cattle farmers who insist that the dangerous strains of E-Coli will unavoidably contaminate beef, when in fact those strains are non-existent in pasture-raised cattle.

  22. Anna Epstein Levine via Facebook
    July 27, 2011 | 1:51 pm

    what about organic chicken, is that safe?

  23. Food Renegade via Facebook
    July 27, 2011 | 2:00 pm

    @Anna — I should think so. Unless organic regulations have changed in the last 5 years, when this press release was issued by the Organic Consumers Assoc: http://www.organicconsumers.org/foodsafety/arsenic060405.cfm

  24. Peg Danek via Facebook
    July 27, 2011 | 2:12 pm

    And they are worried about melatonin in brownies (Google Lazy Cakes).

  25. Michele Niesen via Facebook
    July 27, 2011 | 2:39 pm

    Remember everyone, it’s not just the “label” organic. If it’s factory farmed, large production livestock, chances are they are jacked up on something. Antibiotics HAVE to be introduced in crowded conditions. And they HAVE to crowd them because we want a roti chicken cooked AND under $6. Impossible. There are so many loopholes in packaging and the lobbyists are so powerful. The whole “free range” thing only has to mean they can turn around in their pen and aren’t stacked like logs. But trust me, that’s not their natural chicken-ness. If you don’t know the farmer, question EVERYthing. I’ve worked in the food biz for my whole life. Eek. Which is why I now farm. Somethings gotta change.

  26. Howard C. Gray via Facebook
    July 27, 2011 | 3:04 pm

    Cheap food, expensive Health Care… follow the money.

  27. Sue Peer via Facebook
    July 27, 2011 | 4:27 pm

    Was talking to a “factory chicken farmer” and fishing for info about what they were fed. She said” No chemicals,just arsnic.” Duu…

  28. m scanlon
    July 28, 2011 | 7:21 am

    seriously guys, weve been eating this stuff for years and no one complained about anything before, this world has gotten to soft… your teaching your kids to fear EVERYTHING

    • Hayley
      July 28, 2011 | 2:00 pm

      I’m not sure how long this practice has been in effect but the overall health of the general population has been in a steady decline, in case you haven’t noticed…I’m pretty sure it’s linked.

      Unfortunately we just bought a ton of store chicken but after it’s gone I’m not buying it anymore.

  29. Kristen
    July 28, 2011 | 12:56 pm

    This depresses me. I mean, what else is wrong with our food? Why can’t we trust our food sources? It’s like a big game to everyone…and you wonder why there are so many health issues.

  30. Rebecca
    July 28, 2011 | 2:00 pm

    @m scanlon—
    Really? We may not have known the cause of it, but there’s a reason for the jumps in cancer, obesity, learning disabilities, physical disabilities, hyperactivity, allergies and who knows what else. Maybe it’s the chemicals in the food we eat.

  31. Karen
    July 28, 2011 | 11:17 pm

    Are the people at the FDA on drugs? And not neccessarily limited to the ones made by Big Pharma. They won’t let Blue Diamond tell consumers about the health benefits of eating walnuts, because that makes it a drug even though the benefits existed long before the FDA, yet they let poultry processors hide the health risks of eating poultry that has garbage that never existed in a chicken until they approved it.

    Their regulations make no more sense than the crackhead on the corner arguing with a piece of paper on the sidewalk.

  32. Michael
    July 29, 2011 | 10:44 am

    I’m curious if the arsenic is added manually by industrial farmers, or if it’s already in the chicken feed they buy (which leads to the real question). If so, is it in the chicken feed we buy for our own back yard chickens?

    • KristenM
      July 29, 2011 | 10:46 am

      It is in the feed they buy. If you’re buying feed for your own chickens, you’ll need to look at the ingredients labels to see whether or not one of these arsenic containing drugs is in them.

  33. Cromulent Croc
    July 29, 2011 | 12:57 pm

    Yes, but… the dose makes the poison. If there were indeed enough arsenic in chicken to kill someone, well, someone would’ve died? Arsenic is pretty potent and cannot decompose short of nuclear fission, so it’d be easy to discover and trace.

    No, the real danger is leaching into soil and water, and you’re right on the money there. The FDA acted responsibly, though I wish it’d look beyond its immediate mandate and consider such environmental side-effects beyond the danger to consumers.

    Thank you for posting this (especially that link to The Atlantic), but it does not behoove you to be sensasionalistic. Yes, this is the Internet, and yes, this is a blog, and yes, it brings you profit, but it’s still disappointing. Surely if we can take a stand against industrialised food, we must do the same against nutritionless wording?

  34. Gina
    July 29, 2011 | 7:58 pm

    This is all very disturbing and frustrating at the same time. You have to consider a poor family and a rich families pocket books.

    Organic chickens cost easily 2x to 3x non organic ones do. That’s fine when you have the money to spend on healthier food. Grown in healthier environments and allowed to grow without much tampering. Not so fine when your struggling from paycheck to paycheck.

    We all can’t grow our own chickens.. so what does that leave us? The Farmer trying to make a buck and the poor trying not to starve. Sometimes they are one and the same.

  35. Peter
    July 30, 2011 | 2:02 pm

    Agatha Christie’s ‘Who Dunnit Chicken’, at a super market near you!

  36. Diana
    July 31, 2011 | 5:02 pm

    Years ago I went through chelation therapy to get the high levels of arsenic out of my system (along with the high levels of mercury.)
    I had no idea where the arsenic could have come from, other than the fertilizer put on the lawn. Since I don’t eat that grass, it remained somewhat of a mystery. Now I know, and will be sharing with everyone I know!
    Thanks for this article.

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Who Am I?

My name is Kristen Michaelis. I'm a nutrition educator, author, and mother of three. I adore hats, happy skirts, horizons full of storm clouds, the full-bodied feel of wind as I ride motorcylces, reading in my hammock, and a hearty shot of Caol Ila scotch. I'm also a rebel with a cause.
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