Arsenic in chicken feeds is back in the news.
It comes up occasionally when somebody finds out for the first time that it’s there, but dies down when people learn that it’s been in poultry rations for decades.
The latest round of concerns has been raised because researchers at Johns Hopkins University said they found levels of arsenic in chicken that exceeded amounts that occur naturally, and warned that they could lead to a small increase in the risk of cancer for consumers over a lifetime.
The levels were well below danger levels set in federal safety standards, though the researchers pointed out that those were first established in the 1940s.
The chicken samples tested were from 2010 and 2011, before sales of the drug that researchers say was a major driver of the elevated arsenic levels, roxarsone, were suspended.
A spokeswoman for the chicken industry said the levels found by researchers were low, but the researchers contend that the elevated levels are important because the United States Food and Drug Administration has not banned the drug, and it is still being sold abroad.
The issue of arsenic in food has drawn public attention since research last year by Consumer Reports found substantial arsenic levels in rice. Arsenic residue in rice often comes from water used in farming.
Keeve Nachman, a scientist at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future and the chicken study’s main author, acknowledged that the levels of inorganic arsenic in chicken were far lower than those found in rice, but said that any deliberate additive amounted to a public health risk.
Roxarsone, and a chemically similar drug, nitarsone, remain the last federally-approved uses of arsenic in food production, he said.
Roxarsone, known by its brand name 3-Nitro, kills intestinal parasites, promotes growth and makes meat look pinker.
It contains organic arsenic, which is far less toxic than its inorganic counterpart.
For decades, it was believed that animals simply excreted organic arsenic.
But evidence is emerging that it may also be converted into its carcinogenic cousin in the body of the chicken, says the New York Times.
A spokeswoman for the company that sells the drug, Zoetis, said sales in the United States “remain suspended pending the ongoing evaluation of relevant scientific data regarding the use of this product in poultry.”
She said that the company no longer manufactures the drug, and that it is selling down remaining stock in markets that still permit it, all of them in Latin America.