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Environmental connections to public health >>

On Turkeys: Arsenic In, Arsenic Out

Monday, November 22, 2010

By Lisa Frack, with Sonya Lunder and Rebecca Sutton, PhD

There's a lot to think about when you're buying that Thanksgiving turkey: how many pounds for the number of guests, how far in advance you need to order it (and from where?), whether it's local, whether you also need a tofurkey or some such, too, for those who don't eat the real deal, and last but not least, what to stuff the thing with.

But before you sit down and say, "Pass the cranberry sauce, please," don't forget the arsenic.

The what, you say? Yes, the arsenic.

In addition to the fact that turkey meat itself contains arsenic (as do plenty of other foods), the arsenic that turkeys (and chickens) eat in their feed winds up in their waste, which then makes its way onto our farm fields as fertilizer and into our soil and water as a toxic contaminant.

It turns out that poultry feed is a major ongoing source of arsenic in the environment. While it might sound alarming that there's arsenic in your chicken sandwich and your Thanksgiving dinner, it's just one harmful consequence of the conventional poultry industry's arsenic addiction.

Why are chickens and turkeys being fed arsenic? Poultry producers often feed their birds antibiotics to combat parasites and enhance the bird's pink color (for eye appeal to consumers), and one antibiotic contains arsenic.

How do arsenic-eating chickens & turkeys pollute the environment, our food and our water? Poultry waste is widely used as fertilizer, which of course wends its way right into nearby waterways -- and eventually distant ones, too -- contaminating them as well as the food grown on those fields.

The Chesapeake Bay is a perfect example of this, with its numerous poultry-raising factory farms. Some large poultry producers claim to have voluntarily stopped using feed with arsenic, but tests show that not to be a sure bet. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation summarizes the problem well:

"Science tells us that the arsenic in chicken feed becomes concentrated in the birds' manure. Manure is commonly spread on cropland around the Chesapeake Bay, and when the arsenic in the manure degrades it can become harmful.

Researchers at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health have expressed concern that arsenic in chicken litter may be a risk to human health, either through exposure of poultry-house workers to airborne arsenic, or through contamination of local soils and or groundwater."

Is anyone working to remove arsenic from poultry feed? Yes. In fact, we're pleased to see that the state of Maryland currently moving to ban arsenic from poultry feed. The European Union banned it in 1999, and last year about this time Rep. Steve Israel of New York introduced the Poison-Free Poultry Act of 2009. It didn't pass -- though we wish it had. Some poultry producers say they have voluntarily stopped using the arsenic, but subsequent tests and oddly high sales volumes of the arsenic-containing feed (Roxarsone) suggest that may not be the case (shocking, we know). What can you do? Buy a better bird. While the critical step needed here is to ban arsenic in poultry feed, as Europe has done, poultry eaters can vote with our forks for clean water and safer foods. How? Simple:

  • Buy organic or antibiotic-free poultry (starting with your Thanksgiving turkey!), because neither is fed arsenic-laden antibiotics. As is so often the case, eating for your own health is a win for the environment, too.
  • Support state and federal bans on arsenic-laced feed.
  • Spread the word! When more people are aware and care, markets and policy changes happen faster.

Happy (arsenic free) Thanksgiving!

[Thanks to Flickr and minimalistphotography101 for the turkey pic]

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