Wednesday, July 20, 2011


Arsenic evokes fears among the consumers as it is one of the earliest poisons known to humans. It is unbelievable how such a poisonous substance is allowed to be used by the poultry industry purely for increasing the visual quality of meat. It is claimed by the industry that including arsenic in the poultry feed also fights infections among the birds though there are many other safer substances available for preventing infectious diseases. Of course there is excellent chance that practice of using arsenic compounds like Roxarsone in poultry feeds by more than 70% of the broiler growers in the US may be banned in the near future considering that the excreta from such birds containing high levels of arsenic contaminates ground water. According to WHO more than 57 million people in the world have access to only water that contains more than 10 ppb arsenic, the safe limit set by the global agency. How far the poultry industry has contributed to this unfortunate situation is any body's guess!

Elemental arsenic and arsenic compounds are classified as Group I carcinogens by the European Union as elevated levels of these poisonous substances, especially for prolonged periods, can lead to cancer of bladder, kidney, prostate, skin and nasal cavity. Though testing of blood, urine, hair and nails can reveal arsenic levels in human body, the test results cannot be depended upon to predict the effect of arsenic at levels detected by one or two tests. According to knowledgeable scientists arsenic can elevate the production of Hydrogen Peroxide in the tissue leading generation of active Oxygen radicals with potential to damage the DNA. This in turn can lead to cancer over long periods of exposure. As per some estimates there are more than 80 million people across the world, exposed to drinking water sources containing between 10 and 50 ppb arsenic and incidence of cancer is high among these population. In the US alone 20% of wells yield water with high arsenic concentration. Water treatment technology to day has the wherewithal to remove arsenic and probably such treatment regimes are protecting people from arsenic epidemic.

Recent announcement about voluntary suspension of use of arsenic laced feed by the FDA of the US comes after years of controversy over the widespread poultry industry practice of giving chicks arsenic-laced feed to combat infection and give their flesh a pinker hue. Surprisingly use of arsenic containing feed is confined only to the US and why this was being allowed could be due to the lobbying power of the industry on the government. It may be recalled that there has been persistent demand by scientists and environmentalists to ban it nationally because of their concerns about food safety and the environmental impact of arsenic in poultry waste getting into soil and streams.

Some progressive players in the poultry industry have already phased out its use seeing the writings on the wall without waiting for any government action but the current move by FDA to put in place a "voluntary suspension" mode for the arsenic-laced drug is based on findings that there were elevated levels of arsenic, a proven carcinogen, in birds fed the substance. Roxarsone, the most conspicuous brand based on arsenic, has been a standard component of chicken feeds since the 1940s as the industry claims that it ensures "growth promotion, feed efficiency and improved pigmentation in chickens." Poultry industry, probably, can justifiably argue that the US population, consuming chicken meat, produced from flocks raised on arsenic containing feeds during the last seven decades, is not affected by cancer more than those in other countries not permitting arsenic in poultry feeds!

The turn around in the stand by the FDA came after it was realized that the drug containing the less harmful organic form of arsenic in Roxarsone got converted into more harmful inorganic form, which is known to cause cancer. It is a mystery as to why the FDA came to the conclusion regarding its safety after finding that 100 broiler chickens fed Roxarsone had elevated levels of inorganic arsenic in the their livers. Both the FDA and industry aver that though arsenic is carcinogenic, the levels detected in the chickens were very low and there's no health risk for people to continue eating Roxarsone-treated poultry! .It is sad that the overseeing agency that controls poultry industry in the US had closed its eyes to this irrational and unsafe practice of the industry during the last seven decades under the guise that the chicken meat obtained from arsenic fed birds contain less than the prescribed limit of this poisonous substance. How far the data can be trusted is any body's guess because of the hold industry has on government agencies in that country. The manufacturers of 3-Nitro, an arsenic based organic drug for use in poultry feeds had the good sense to voluntarily suspend its sale realizing the seriousness of the concerns expressed by many consumer organizations. Hopefully a national ban (voluntary), expected to be put in place soon, will ensure that arsenic containing feeds will become part of history pretty soon.

No comments: