Testimony in Favor of Arsenic Prohibition in Commercial Feed

By Jenny Levin
Public Health Advocate

Testimony before the Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs
HB 207 - Agriculture – Commercial Feed – Arsenic Prohibition


Position: The Maryland Public Interest Group supports the passage of SB 207, prohibiting a person from using, selling, or distributing specified commercial feed intended for use as poultry feed that contains roxarsone or any other additive that contains arsenic.

Arsenic: A Clear Understanding of the Accumulative Dangers
The use of roxarsone in poultry feed is meant to produce growth promotion, feed efficiency, and improved pigmentation; however, it also produces arsenic in the chickens and other poultry that consume it. The use of roxarsone was first approved by the FDA in 1944. At the time, the FDA knew that arsenic was a byproduct, but it was believed that the arsenic produced was organic and therefore less harmful. More recent studies have indicated that organic arsenic can transform into inorganic arsenic, a known carcinogen, that can contaminate both poultry’s meat and excreted waste (which can in turn contaminate rivers and groundwater).

While the arsenic produced by roxarsone in poultry may be low enough to pose only a moderate threat on its own, the aggregate effect of arsenic from other sources could potentially cause serious risk of cancer and other health issues.

Arsenic on our dinner table because of its use in chicken feed is a clear case of the lax food safety standards consumers’ deal with today. According to an FDA study, 55% of chicken in grocery stores, and 100% of fast food chicken has detectable levels of arsenic. "Between 1995 and 2000, 70 percent of the 8.7 billion chickens produced each year in the U.S were fed arsenic.

The fact that a cancer causing agent such as arsenic is found in our food is a disturbing example of the failure of large food producers to put the health and safety of the American people first. 

Chronic exposure to arsenic is associated with increased risk for bladder, kidney, lung, liver, and colon cancer, as well as cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Arsenic is banned from use in cosmetics in Cananda because of the risk associated with skin contact. Arsenic is considered a priority pollutant by the EPA, and considered toxic by ingestion by the European Union.

Several studies suggest a link between arsenic exposure and type II diabetes. Arsenic may also have immunological and cardiovascular effects, including hypertension and coronary artery disease. Birth defects have been observed in animals exposed to inorganic arsenic.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s own research indicates that concentrations of arsenic in chicken combined with the increasing levels of chicken consumption may indicate a need to review assumptions regarding overall ingested arsenic intake.

Children may be more susceptible to arsenic than adults since they are less efficient at converting inorganic arsenic to the less harmful organic forms. Children may consume residues of arsenic compounds through contamination of foods by pollution, pesticides or fertilizers, livestock residues (from medications and pesticidal treatments). Chicken may contain significant arsenic contamination because chicken feed is often supplemented with arsenic-based drugs to control intestinal parasites. One study found arsenic levels three to four times higher in chicken than in other meat and poultry.

Chickens are not the only environmental source of arsenic. In addition to drinking water, for which the Environmental Protection Agency now sets a level of 10 parts per billion, other poultry, rice, fish and a number of foods also contain the poison. Soils are contaminated with arsenical pesticides from chicken manure; chicken litter containing arsenic is fed to other animals; and until 2003, arsenic was used in pressure-treated wood for decks and playground equipment.

It is up to the Maryland General Assembly to protect the public from known food hazards where the FDA is unable. There already are alternatives to arsenic, so why put public health at risk?

We should be able to eat chicken without consuming harmful additives, but Marylanders are inadvertently exposing themselves, and their loved ones, to a known carcinogen hidden in a seemingly nutritious meal.

As a proud poultry production state, Maryland should ban the use of arsenic in chicken feed immediately, to protect a valuable industry, and the health and trust of Maryland citizens. 

Maryland should do its best to ensure its residents are protected from dangerous chemicals in their environment and in their food. Arsenic is, indisputably, harmful to humans. By enacting SB 207, Maryland would be helping its residents reduce exposure to toxic arsenic.

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