Arsenic in Chickens: The FDA Takes On Poisonous Poultry

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In an unusual move, the agency did its own testing to prove a Pfizer drug unsafe. Will Congress empower it to do more?

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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 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. It found that chickens fed organic arsenic in the form of 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.


This post also appears on Food Politics.
Image: Brendan McDermid/Reuters

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Marion Nestle is a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University. She is the author of Food Politics, Safe Food, What to Eat, and Pet Food Politics. More

Nestle also holds appointments as Professor of Sociology at NYU and Visiting Professor of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell. She is the author of three prize-winning books: Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (revised edition, 2007), Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety (2003), and What to Eat (2006). Her most recent book is Feed Your Pet Right: The Authoritative Guide to Feeding Your Dog and Cat. She writes the Food Matters column for The San Francisco Chronicle and blogs almost daily at Food Politics.

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