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Wait, There's Arsenic in Chicken?!

What the FDA's tests of chicken tell us, and why we can't expect the FDA to uncover more unsavory truths about our food supply.


For years, as Tom Philpott recounts on his new food and agriculture blog for Mother Jones, public health advocates have fretted about the use of arsenic-containing drugs to kill intestinal parasites and promote growth in chickens.

One such drug is roxarsone, made by Pfizer. Its arsenic is in the organic (carbon-containing) form, which is less toxic than the inorganic form.

But, as the New York Times explained, evidence has been accumulating that the organic form can change into the more toxic, inorganic form, a known carcinogen.

As reported in Food Safety News,  the Center for Food Safety, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, and several other consumer and agriculture groups petitioned FDA to ban the drug three years ago.

Last week, the FDA announced that the agency had done its own feeding tests.  Chickens fed organic roxarsone had higher levels of inorganic arsenic in their tissues.  The FDA got Pfizer to “voluntarily” withdraw the drug from the market.

The surprise here is not the FDA’s delay in dealing with this drug.  The big surprise is that the FDA did its own testing.  As the Times put it:

The F.D.A. once routinely conducted its own studies of animal and human drugs, but limited budgets led the agency to eliminate much of its scientific and laboratory capacity over the years. The roxarsone study is a triumph for agency scientists but one unlikely to be repeated very often. The agency asked for $183 million in additional funds for food safety efforts next year, but House Republicans have instead proposed cutting $87 million.

Drug companies cannot be expected to do their own testing if there is any chance that the tests will show something not in their best interest.  If independent federal agencies don’t do these kinds of studies, who will?

I can remember when the FDA housed a group of researchers doing outstanding work on food allergies in the 1990s.  The FDA closed down that lab when it was given additional responsibilities by Congress with no additional funding.

The FDA is a public health agency.  Its job is to protect the public against unsafe food contaminated with bacteria or antibiotics such as roxarsone.  The agency gets high marks for taking this on.  And Congress needs to support the FDA’s research mission.

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Marion Nestle

Marion Nestle

Noted author Marion Nestle is a Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University. She is the author of What to Eat.
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What To Eat: Expert advice on food, health and nutrition issues that are in the news.
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