Go ahead and pick up some poultry—but it's best if it’s from Maryland. The state recently became the first in the nation to pass a law banning farmers from using arsenic-based feed additives in raising their chickens. Beginning next year, the state’s poultry producers will no longer be free to feed their birds a steady dose of poison-laced drugs like roxarsone.
The legislation signed into law last week may not have garnered much attention outside of Maryland, but it’s a significant move forward for the country at large. Arsenic-based feed additives like roxarsone have historically been used liberally in America’s booming poultry industry, to the detriment of water, wildlife, and chicken-eaters everywhere.
Poultry producers feed their birds roxarsone to prevent intestinal problems and make chicken flesh a more appetizing shade of pink. While Big Poultry has claimed for years that the use of roxarsone and other arsenic-based feed additives has no impact on consumer health, evidence suggests that all that arsenic is unnecessarily risky for consumers. Last year, the FDA found increased levels of arsenic in the livers of supermarket chickens. The FDA asserts that the presence of arsenic in chicken poses no threat to human health, but even relatively low levels of arsenic elsewhere have been linked to cancers, developmental disorders, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and other maladies. Because roxarsone isn’t a necessity—it’s easy to raise healthy birds without feeding them poison—eliminating the use of roxarsone and similar drugs is an easy way to avoid exposure to arsenic.
When the FDA released its study last year, roxarsone’s maker, Pfizer, voluntarily pulled the drug from the market pending further research into its safety. Critics of Maryland’s new law argue that the legislation is unnecessary given Pfizer’s voluntary removal of roxarsone. But Pfizer still has another arsenic-based poultry drug on the market, histostat. While histostat isn’t nearly as popular among farmers as roxarsone, its potential impacts on human health, water, and wildlife are similarly problematic. And without legislation barring the use of arsenic-based feed additives, Pfizer can put roxarsone back on the market at any time, or concoct another poultry drug containing arsenic.
Arsenic-based poultry drugs take their toll on the environment, too. After chickens gobble up arsenic-laced feeds, much of that poison is excreted in the birds’ waste. Farmers typically take this manure and spread it all over their fields—and that’s when things get really scary. In its waste form, the arsenic tends to break down from an organic compound into its more toxic inorganic form. Once it rains, this poisonous, inorganic arsenic makes its way from crop fields and soil into nearby waterways. The presence of inorganic arsenic doesn’t only present risks for people who use and drink said water, but also could pose problems for aquatic plants and wildlife.
The problem of arsenic in waterways is especially evident in Maryland’s most beleaguered body of water, the Chesapeake Bay. About 1,700 poultry producers are located on the Delmarva Peninsula, a strip of land that juts into the bay. These farmers bang out about 11 million chickens every single week. All those birds produce tons of waste—as much as 39 million tons a year, in fact—and arsenic from said waste regularly washes into the already polluted Bay. A Food & Water Watch study found that wells located on both sides of the Chesapeake Bay contained arsenic levels up to 13 times higher than the Environmental Protection Agency’s tolerable limits. Maryland had the good sense to outlaw the use of arsenic-based feed additives in part to protect the ailing Chesapeake Bay, but similar scenarios are playing out in states across the country.
Maryland remains the only state to ban the use of arsenic-based feed additives. And arsenic is only one class of drugs in an industry that overuses countless pharmaceuticals. But the recent passage of the Maryland law is a good sign of things to come. When this same legislation came before Maryland lawmakers in the past, it quickly died thanks to pressure from Big Ag and the state’s numerous poultry producers. The fact that lawmakers finally stood up to protect consumers and the environment sends a powerful message to industrial agriculture. Let’s hope the other 49 states are listening.