In January the news came out that the FDA had allowed a cancer-causing arsenic compound to be used as a growth stimulator in broiler chickens. As this news story shows about 70% of US chickens were affected by this method.
A subsidiary of Pfizer produced the arsenic-containing drug, Roxarsone. This is an organic arsenic compound that gets accumulated in the liver of chickens. It is also known by the name of “3-nitro”. The full chemical name is 3-Nitro-4-hydroxyphenylarsonic acid.
The FDA came up with a question and answer section on their website. The FDA stated the following:
“FDA announced that Alpharma, a subsidiary of Pfizer Inc, will voluntarily suspend sale of the animal drug 3-Nitro® (Roxarsone) in response to a new FDA study of 100 broiler chickens that detected inorganic arsenic, a known carcinogen, at higher levels in the livers of chickens treated with the drug 3-Nitro® (Roxarsone) than in untreated chickens. FDA officials stress that the levels of inorganic arsenic detected were very low and that continuing to eat chicken as 3-Nitro® is suspended from the market does not pose a health risk.”
The website explains further that the drug was approved to treat coccidiosis, an infection that can affect the gut of chickens. It should be pointed out that this parasite occurs more often in the crowded conditions of concentrated animal feeding operations. The FDA statement goes on to say that “3-Nitro® is also approved for weight gain, feed efficiency and improved pigmentation in chickens”. What this means is that the farmer has to spend less money of feed and the chickens still gain considerable weight. They also look pretty from the outside with nicely pigmented feathers, but as the reporter noted in the beginning of this blog the meat “tastes weird, stringy, just…funny”.
When you read the fine print of the FDA website, it reveals that originally it allowed 3-Nitro® to be marketed in 1944 based on negative toxicity studies on rodents. The drug was approved again in 2009 for combination use with other drugs for suppression of coccidiosis. As 3-nitro is an organic arsenic compound and organic arsenic has been found to be non-toxic, they assumed that it was safe to allow this feed supplement for chickens. It turns out that with more sensitive newer testing methods scientists from the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM) and Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN) found that organic arsenic compound can be metabolized in the chicken into cancer-causing inorganic arsenic compounds.
Now the FDA logic comes into play: it is called the “Delaney Clause for new animal drugs”. You can read about this in the FDA link about questions and answers. Essentially what this says it that the FDA cannot allow a drug to be approved, if an animal comes down with cancer. But it is legal to use a drug as long as it does not kill the animal or the FDA does not detect the drug in any food from the animal.
The new experiments showed that the liver and kidney inorganic arsenic levels were higher than the levels in the muscles. The muscle tissue levels of inorganic arsenic could not reliably be determined with the methods developed for liver analysis. But total arsenic compound tests were successful and were substantially lower in muscle than liver or kidney tissues.
The FDA concluded from this that continuing to eat chicken meat from chickens treated with 3-Nitro® does “not pose a health risk”.
Messing with our food
To me this is just one example of how the agro industry, Big Pharma and the FDA are co-operating in messing with our food. The envelope is being pushed to the point where administrative language is used to dispel any common sense that might shed a little bit of doubt on the legality of what’s happening in front of our eyes. There are a few points that I would like to raise in this regard.
1. A small amount of a carcinogenic substance in chicken meat is still a poisonous substance. Instead of having 35,660 cases of liver cancer and 61,560 kidney cancer per year in humans you may reduce the amount by 5,000 to 10,000 cases per year. But it is simply not acceptable to put a known cancer producing substance into human food. The reason liver and kidneys are affected more by carcinogens in chickens or in humans is because the liver and the kidneys are the detoxification organs that try to remove the carcinogen from the body and in the process store them in these organs.
2. There should not be a difference between lives saved in the US and lives saved abroad. Just because Big Pharma wants to continue to make a profit with this cancer producing chemical they are allowed by the FDA to continue to ship 3-Nitro® to chicken farms in other countries around the world. As long as this is the case, the meat that comes back to the US from China should be labeled as having been “exposed to a cancer producing substance”. You simply cannot have it both ways; if you export it, it should be labeled when it comes back, and the warning should be made to trade partners about carcinogenic properties.
3. Antibiotics have been used to stimulate growth in animals destined for slaughter. However, this practice has led to superbugs that can attack consumers. One way around this is to use non-antibiotic substances to prevent infections among herds of animals. The practice of using growth hormone-like substances, antibiotics or heavy metals should be abandoned.
The solution is organic food for now
At this point you do not have many options left. You can become a hobby farmer and raise your own chickens, pigs and grow your own vegetables and lettuce. But very few of us are having this option!
Your next option is to only buy organic food. That is what I have been choosing to do more and more for the past 5 years, strictly so for the last 3 years. I find organic food tastes the way my grandmother used to cook. When I compare regular chicken with organic chicken, there is a huge difference in taste.
My hope is that standard farming techniques will change in the future when more people choose organic food and the market forces farmers to pay attention to the wish of the consumers. At that point it may be safe to switch back to regular food. But as long as I read horror stories like the one above, I will protect myself by sticking to the organic alternative.
The story about inorganic, cancer-producing arsenic being allowed into our food since 1944 is only the tip of the iceberg. We have been reassured that growth hormone-like substances would be safe when in reality they cause autoimmune diseases. We know that antibiotics and heavy metals that are used to stimulate growth in animals can cause problems for the consumer: superbugs that are a side effect of antibiotics can cause serious infections in humans; heavy metals that we eat together with the meat of farm animals can poison our metabolism and cause toxic reactions. None of this should be allowed, but it is part of “standard farm practices”. All I can say at this point: protect yourself by eating organic foods.