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Study questions use of arsenicals in chicken

A new study questions feeding arsenical compounds, such as roxarsone, in chicken production, but the compound was removed from the marketplace in 2011.

Chickens likely raised with arsenic-based drugs result in chicken meat that has higher levels of inorganic arsenic, a known carcinogen, according to a new study led by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (CLF) at the Bloomberg School of Public Health.

According to CLF, this is the first study to show concentrations of specific forms of arsenic (e.g., inorganic arsenic versus other forms) in retail chicken meat, and the first to compare those concentrations according to whether or not the poultry was raised with arsenical drugs. The study was published online May 11 in the scientific journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

Conventional, antibiotic-free and USDA Organic chicken samples were purchased from 10 U.S. metropolitan areas between December 2010 and June 2011, when roxarsone, an arsenic-based drug then manufactured by Pfizer Animal Health, was available to poultry companies that wished to add it to their feed. In addition to inorganic arsenic, CLF said the researchers were able to identify residual roxarsone in the meat they studied; in the meat where roxarsone was detected, levels of inorganic arsenic were four times higher than the levels in USDA Organic chicken (in which roxarsone and other arsenicals are prohibited from use).

Pfizer Anima Health, now Zoetis, suspended sales of roxarsone in the U.S. in June 2011 after research suggested that there may be food safety concerns. Zoetis indicated to wire services that it no longer manufactures roxarsone and is selling off remaining inventories in regions where the product is still allowed, such as Latin America.

"It is not surprising or worrisome that very low levels of arsenic were found on chicken," Dr. Ashley Peterson, National Chicken Council (NCC) vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs, said in response to the very small CLF study. "Arsenic is a naturally occurring element in our environment that is widely distributed within the earth's soil, air and water."

Peterson added, "The samples analyzed, taken as part of this extremely small, agenda-driven study, were purchased before roxarsone was removed from the market in June 2011, and the conclusions are used to intentionally mislead consumers.

"The U.S. Food & Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture provide oversight and guidance to ensure food and beverages in the U.S. are safe, ..." Peterson concluded. "There is no documented evidence to suggest that very tiny levels of arsenic in our food supply pose any health problems."

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