March 5, 2012

The Other Side of the Chicken

Amber Summers

Amber Summers

Doctoral Fellow

Center for a Livable Future

As a nutrition professional, my focus on chicken has been on healthy preparation methods, appropriate portion sizes, which part of the animal to eat, and what colorful foods should surround it on the plate. Discussion of what happens before the chicken gets to the plate had been rare, until recently, as consumers become more sensitive to what’s going into to our food and how it can affect the environment and our personal health. I recently had my first in-person experience with one of the hurdles in promoting a healthy change in food production.  It was a major eye-opener to see how great of a hurdle the legislative process can be.

On February 14, I attended a hearing on the bill to ban the use of arsenic in chicken feed in Maryland. For decades, chicken producers have added the arsenical drug roxarsone to chicken feed for the stated purpose of killing intestinal parasites. (Roxarsone also makes the chickens grow larger.) At this time, roxarsone is not available for purchase; its manufacturer, Pfizer, voluntarily suspended sales. We don’t know for how long Pfizer will keep it off the market. If passed, the Ban Arsenic in Agriculture Act (HB 167/SB 207), introduced by Maryland State Delegate Tom Hucker (D-District 20, Montgomery County) and Maryland Senator Paul Pinsky (D-District 22, Prince George’s County), would be a step towards protecting the public from an unnecessary carcinogen.

This is the third year in a row that a bill like this has been introduced, dying in the State House in previous years. (Read Jared Margulies’s blogpost on this.) On the day of the hearing, I tagged along with CLF scientists Keeve Nachman, PhD, and David Love, PhD, who testified as proponents of the bill. They would introduce two new studies since the previous hearing. One study by the FDA reports on the presence of low levels of inorganic arsenic in the livers of chickens fed with feed containing roxarsone. The other study, by the University of Maryland’s Hughes Center for Agro-Ecology, provided evidence that when chickens are fed roxarsone, the litter, particularly once aged, contains inorganic arsenic that can accumulate in soil. (Note: While roxarsone contains a chemically organic form of arsenic, the organic form can be converted to the inorganic, and more carcinogenic, form inside the chicken.) Other proponents giving testimony included representatives from Food & Water Watch, a nurse, and Maryland Attorney General Douglas Gansler.

I sat towards the back of the room, which at many points throughout the hearing was standing room only, and listened to the three panels of proponents state fact after fact highlighting the unnecessary harms of roxarsone use. Each was diligent about providing scientific evidence to support his or her statements during the brief moment in the spotlight. After all proponents on a panel gave testimony, the committee began their comments and questions. It seemed evident that some of the committee members had heard testimony on similar bills in years past, based on their somewhat calculated questions. Yet, they still sought clarification on the issues, placing a great emphasis on trying to understand the differences between the presence of inorganic versus organic arsenic. At times, committee members made comments that likely were not completely accurate, based on the body language the proponents.  Even though the microphone was still within close reach, it was apparently not appropriate for non-committee members to interject with the facts. As a result, I had the impression that some of the waters were still muddy before the opponents took the stage.

The three opponents of the bill— poultry industry representatives—held their ground firmly during their testimony. They made arguments that the type of inorganic arsenic found in chickens is also found in other foods such as fruit and vegetables, and that the ban would put Maryland state farmers at a competitive disadvantage.

As a mere observer in the room, I imagined if I were testifying and the frustration I would have felt simply from not being granted the opportunity to respond to the opposition. In fact, neither opponents nor proponents of the bill were guaranteed an opportunity to respond to the committee’s comments.

I think about the changes in food consumption that I promote at the individual level, which are by no means without challenge; however, what I heard as a very clear and evidence-based message [that we have the opportunity to remove a harmful substance which has no apparent benefit from a food source] may not have been received as such by the committee. Besides learning (the hard way) the importance of having a heartier breakfast prior to attending a hearing, my field trip to Annapolis helped me to gain an understanding of the challenges that are faced in bringing about change that appears to be common sense and could have such a broad reach and implications. For me, this was a very different side of the chicken.


  1. Posted by Ashley

    It is unsettling that the opponents of the bill are more concerned with having an agricultural advantage rather than focus on the health prevention of our nation. We can only hope that our nation will one day put PEOPLE before PROFIT. Great article!

  2. They make their profit by beating out their competitors. They do this by lowering prices. They achieve this by getting more meat per chicken. Profit benefits the ‘manufacturer’ and the consumer (read:you).

    I’m willing to pay more for chicken but a lot of the poor are not. If we want to stop arsenic from being added to the chicken then let us all stop buying it until they remove it. Just like we got milk producers to stop using BGH.

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