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Maryland set to sign Strong Law on Arsenic in Chicken

By Nasima Hossain
Public Health Advocate

Maryland has decided to sign into law a bill this week, against stiff opposition from the poultry industry, making Maryland the first state to end a practice in existence since 1944. The law would take effect January 2013 and would limit hundreds of poultry growers in Maryland from using Roxarsone an antibiotic with a side effect that bursts blood vessels, making meat look pink and plump. This practice has been occurring for more than 60 years. Poultry growers, drug companies and the Food and Drug Administration said Roxarsone, sold under the brand 3-Nitro, contained a harmless form of organic arsenic that is present in almost everything in nature, including a glass of drinking water.

That thinking was however firmly contradicted last year by an FDA study that found trace amounts of inorganic arsenic in the livers of chickens that were fed Roxarsone and then slaughtered for tests. However the FDA continued to say that eating chicken with small traces of inorganic was safe!

Lawmakers in Maryland decided to have their own studies conducted and rightly so. The University of Maryland’s Wye Research and Education Center studied Roxarsone for the state House Environmental Matters Committee. They found arsenic was going into the soil, obviously into millions of chickens and 30,000 pounds of arsenic was added each year to the soil in terms of fertilizer and manure, and then washed by heavy rains into rivers and streams that flow to the Chesapeake Bay. Research also confirmed that Roxarsone went into chickens as organic arsenic and came out in manure as toxic inorganic arsenic adding to the arsenic in soil then ultimately polluting the waters of Maryland. Arsenic is a known carcinogenic and there is strong evidence that it is linked to neurological defects in children and has been linked to cardiovascular disease, diabetes and adverse pregnancy outcomes.

Maryland policymakers and legislators are moving in the right direction, so are some companies like Perdue who stopped using arsenic in 2007, McDonald’s restaurants and the Chipotle restaurant chain who states correctly, “We think arsenic sounds a lot like poison.”

This state law is actually stronger than current federal law as recently the FDA issued voluntary guidance documents that set guidelines on how antibiotics should be used to slow the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and these regulations will be phased in over a three year period and I repeat again are voluntary!

Hopefully Maryland’s strong stand on arsenic will encourage lawmakers in Georgia, North Carolina and Arkansas, where poultry production dwarfs Maryland’s poultry output to consider a similar piece of legislation.

We are very pleased that this strong consumer protection bill will be signed into law, but at the same time we are also extremely concerned that the slew of anti-regulatory bills such as RAA, REINS, RFIA and the Regulatory Freeze for Jobs Act of 2012 that are hurtling through Congress will make it extremely difficult for laws like this to be passed in the future.   There was strong push back from the poultry industry specially Delmarva Poultry Industry, who argued in hearings that state regulation was unnecessary, because Roxarsone was a federally licensed and approved drug. If the anti-regulations bills are enacted they will make it even more easier for our friends in special interest to block strong consumer and public health protections through litigations and by demanding endless analysis of why a law such as this one is required! 

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