Pfizer’s Fight to Keep Arsenic in Chicken Feed

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By Alison Fairbrother and Donna Trussell

Cross-posted with the Washington Spectator. 

Arsenic is natural, but it’s still poison—not to mention carcinogenic—and therefore has no place in the food chain. But that’s just where it is because of the Pfizer drug Roxarsone, which is fed to factory-farm chickens to spur growth and give packaged poultry a “healthy” pink glow on supermarket shelves.

Maryland Delegate Tom Hucker and Sen. Paul Pinsky are trying to change that. A Senate bill banning Roxarsone and arsenic from chicken feed in Maryland will be voted on in the Senate later today.

But they face some tough opposition. Pfizer lobbyists have been working alongside poultry industry representatives to prevent the bill’s passage. Pfizer has employed Tim Perry, who made $1 million last year during the 90-day session of the legislature in Annapolis, as well as Jonas Jacobson, deputy secretary of the environment for former Republican Governor Bob Ehrlich, Hucker says.

Last July, Pfizer voluntarily halted sales of Roxarsone, following FDA testing that found that levels of inorganic arsenic were higher in broiler chickens that had ingested feed containing Roxarsone.

“We are pleased to announce that the company is cooperating with us to protect the public health,” Michael R. Taylor, FDA deputy commissioner for foods wrote in a press release. The drug retained its FDA approval.

“Why [is Pfizer] now spending so much money on top drawer lobbyists to fight a ban on a drug they don’t make anymore?” Hucker asked.

Roxarsone contains organic arsenic, which is not believed to be dangerous to humans, but growing evidence suggests that organic arsenic can transform into inorganic arsenic and remain in human tissue. The International Agency for Research on Cancer, the National Toxicology Program, and the Environmental Protection Agency have all classified arsenic as carcinogenic to humans. The European Union banned Roxarsone in 1999, recognizing the public health risks of the drug.

A 2006 study by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy found that 70 percent of the 9 billion chickens raised for meat in the U.S. are fed arsenic. Maryland raises 1.4 billion pounds of broiler chickens each year.

Even vegetarians are affected by use of Roxarsone, since the arsenic shows up in groundwater and waterways via the 1.2 billion pounds of arcenic-laced waste generated by Maryland broiler chickens.

Douglas Gansler, Maryland’s Attorney General, has been a longtime supporter of the proposed ban. In a 2009 op-ed in The Washington Post, he warned that dangerous levels arsenic in chicken manure might even be reaching drinking water.

“Meanwhile, the poultry industry labors under the legal fiction that although it owns the chicken feed and the chickens that eat the feed, it has no responsibility for the chicken manure,” he wrote.

Perdue Farms of Salisbury, Maryland did not wait for legislation. In 2007, the company stopped using the drug and secured for itself a reputation as a healthier, more natural choice for poultry–proof, environmental advocates say, that you don’t need arsenic to grow a chicken or generate $4.6 billion a year in sales.

Whether Pfizer’s lobbyists will prevail over public health interests remains to be seen, but the company maintains that public safety is an important concern.

“We have a long-standing commitment to environmental health and safety, and this commitment extends to the communities where we work and live,” Pfizer spokesman Chris Loder wrote in an email.

Maryland would be the first state to successfully ban arsenic in chicken feed.