In a one-two punch worthy of a prizefighter, scientists have revealed over the past two days that chicken produced in the United States is generally contaminated with inorganic arsenic and that repeated exposure to low levels of arsenic can cause heart disease in humans. Despite the very recent ban on roxarsone, an arsenic, containing supplement fed to poultry in the US to promote weight gain, Big Ag still uses other supplements that contaminate poultry with arsenic, such as nitarsone. Several advocacy groups, led by the Center for Food Safety, filed a lawsuit against the USDA in May of this year to compel the agency to halt these practices, but there has not been any response.
Just how risky is it to have that chicken sandwich? Researchers writing in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives found 3.0 micrograms of arsenic per kilogram of cooked chicken meat in conventionally raised samples purchased from grocery stores in 2010 and 2011. Antibiotic-free chicken meat had lower levels of arsenic -- 0.7 micrograms of arsenic per kilogram of meat -- and no organic chicken samples had detectable levels of arsenic.
In addition to the fact that arsenic poisons the heart -- more information on that in a moment -- inorganic arsenic is a known human carcinogen. Rather than passing through the chicken unchanged, organic arsenical compounds such as roxarsone and nitarsone are changed into inorganic arsenic and accumulate in the meat. Now, new research from scientists at Johns Hopkins and other institutions indicates that "long-term exposure to low to moderate arsenic levels was associated with cardiovascular disease incidence and mortality."
Pfizer, which manufactured roxarsone, no longer sells this product, but nitarsone is still on the market, and is heavily used in turkey feed. Nitarsone is sold as Histostat by Zoetis, a subsidiary of Pfizer. The EPA is currently updating its views on how toxic inorganic arsenic is, and at what levels, but there is no current USDA regulation on how much inorganic arsenic is permissible in meat. It has been three years since the Center for Food Safety and eight other advocacy groups filed a petition with the USDA to ban all arsenic-containing compounds in animal feed, and no action has been taken -- hence the lawsuit. At present, consumers' only option for avoiding heart-damaging and carcinogenic inorganic arsenic in chicken is to buy organic or to substitute another protein.