Is there “arsenic in our chicken? That’s the headline of a recent article by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof that caused an online binge, so to speak.
The answer is yes – sort of. The arsenic claim appears largely based on a study co-authored by Keeve E. Nachman in the journal Science of the Total Environment.
The study found arsenic levels in feather meal, which is made from chicken feathers and used as a feed for poultry, pigs, and fish, among others.
It turns out that there are different types of arsenic, not all of which are considered toxic. And, as the study authors themselves point out in their article, “There is no evidence that such low levels of arsenic harm chickens or the people who eat them.”
The National Chicken Council responded in a statement that “Chickens produced in the United States for meat do not receive ‘arsenic’ as an additive in chicken feed, nor any of the other compounds mentioned in this study.”
However, the council does admit that some feed contained a product called Roxarsone, which is an organic arsenic-containing molecule, and not the inorganic type considered poisonous. The product was taken off the market last year and is no longer used in raising American chickens, according to the council.
It is not surprising to find arsenic on the feathers of birds as organic arsenic is naturally present in air, soil and water, they said, adding that the test methods used in study are extremely sensitive and can detect a chemical or compound that has not been used for years, or has never been used.
So why all the hubbub? Most likely because arsenic, like the ammonia-infused pink slime recently exposed in hamburger meat at school and in grocery stores, doesn’t sound like something we’d like to eat. And because arsenic is something most often associated with poison.
But every substance is poisonous in the right dose, even water.
Read: Arsenic Levels In Apple And Grape Juices
“It’s all about focus,” said Tom Neuhaus, professor emeritus of food science in the department of food science and nutrition at Cal Poly.
Although Neuhaus is very critical of traditional chicken farming practices, he is wary of condemning them based on the safe levels of arsenic found in feather meal.
“There is arsenic in chocolate and there is arsenic in every breath of air you breathe, in every drop of water you drink,” said Neuhaus who teaches chocolate among other things at Cal Poly.
“It’s not like cesium-137 (a deadly radioactive isotope) – you really don’t want to have a single atom.”