Maryland's General Assembly adopted today a ban on arsenic additives in chicken feed, which if signed into law would make the state the first in the nation to take such a step to keep the toxic chemical out of food and the environment.
By a vote of 101-31, the House of Delegates gave final approval to the bill, ending a lengthy debate over the issue that had pitted environmentalists and food safety advocates against the state's major poultry industry. Similar measures had failed to pass since 2009.
The bill formally prohibits use in Maryland of an arsenic-containing veterinary drug, roxarsone, which was pulled from the market nationwide last year after low levels of inorganic arsenic were found in the livers of chickens treated with it. Inorganic arsenic is a carcinogen, and has been linked with other serious health problems.
Other studies have found arsenic in chicken manure and in water ways by farm fields fertilized with poultry waste.
"This year, we are taking action to keep 30,000 pounds of arsenic out of our environment each year," said Del. Tom Hucker, D-Montgomery, the House sponsor of the legislation. "I’m proud of my colleagues who stood up against the arsenic lobby to protect our environment and the public health.”
Environmentalists and food safety advocates pressed for the ban despite roxarsone's removal from the market nationwide last July. Since sales had only been voluntarily suspended, they argued the drug's maker, a subsidiary of Pfizer Inc., could resume marketing it or another arsenic-containing poultry medication. And they contended the drug wasn't necessary, pointing out that Salisbury-based Perdue Farms, one of the nation's largest poultry producers, had stopped treating its flocks with the drug five years ago.
The state's poultry producers and farm groups opposed the ban, however, contending it's unnecessary since roxarsone sales were halted last year at the request of the Food and Drug Administration. They also argued that Perdue's action notwithstanding, the long-used drug is effective at treating diseases in chickens. If the FDA subsequently clears it for use again, the industry argued the ban would leave Maryland growers at a competitive disadvantage.
The measure was amended by the Senate to provide for lifting the ban if after additional testing the FDA finds the drug, roxarsone, is safe in food and poses no threat to the environment. Senators also exempted another drug containing arsenic that is used to treat a disease in turkeys.