Three years ago, Maryland-based Perdue Farms stopped using feed treated with the antibiotic roxarsone, which contains arsenic. The company found that with better management of its flocks and contract chicken houses, the drug wasn't needed to keep chickens healthy.
Unfortunately, too many in the industry have failed to follow suit. A recent study released by a Washington-based consumer advocacy group Food & Water Watch found poultry available in supermarkets contains three times more arsenic than other meats.
The health implications of this are not easily quantified. The Food & Drug Administration set arsenic limits in poultry nearly 60 years ago when consumption was a fraction of what it is today and when there was far less understanding of arsenic's toxicity. Even today, the U.S. Department of Agriculture tests relatively few broiler chickens for arsenic residue.
Surely it is far better to err on the side of caution in matters of public health. Arsenic is a poison that can cause cancer and also increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, neurological disorders and other health problems.
That's why the Maryland General Assembly needs to step in where Congress and the FDA have failed to act. It's a particularly important issue not only because the Delmarva peninsula is one of the nation's top poultry producers but because the arsenic also winds up in poultry litter that is spread on farm fields and ends up in the Chesapeake Bay.
Perdue's voluntary efforts are important in Maryland, but it is hardly the only poultry producer on the Eastern Shore. Researchers estimate that the massive amount of poultry waste produced on the Delmarva peninsula results in 20 to 50 metric tons of roxarsone being spread on farm fields every year, and hat doesn't even take into account the dangers posed by airborne arsenic to workers in the poultry industry. Nor to the risk posed to Eastern Shore wells from farm run-off.
The proposed state legislation has already won the endorsement of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Maryland League of Conservation Voters. Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler has been pushing for such a ban on the federal level for several years — with support from fellow attorneys general in a majority of other states.
The poultry industry's shortsightedness on the issue is difficult to fathom. Roxarsone is used to fight the growth of certain parasites in birds and makes the butchered meat appear more pink and attractive on market shelves. But consumers expect a higher standard when it comes to food safety and environmental health, particularly in Maryland. The practice of using the drug in chicken feed is already banned in Europe.
And while it would be ideal for regulators at the FDA, USDA or U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to step in and create a national standard, too much is at stake in Maryland to wait on Washington. Better to ban the additive now for the health of consumers, the bay and the industry itself.