Arsenic and Other Chemicals Found in Chicken (UPDATED)

Do you know what's in your chicken?Is pink slime just the tip of the corrupted food iceberg? In an April 4, 2012 article in the New York Times, journalist Nicholas Kristof spotlights two recent studies that have found many unappetizing (to say the least) chemicals lurking in poultry.

Related: Some processors label beef containing pink slime

"We were kind of floored," Keeve E. Nachman, a co-author of both studies and a scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Center for a Livable Future told the Times. "It's unbelievable what we found."

Nachman's team examined ground chicken feathers from six states and China (feathers, like human hair and nails, contain traces of the chemicals an animal has been exposed to). One of the most troubling substances they identified was a broad-spectrum class of antibiotics called fluoroquinolones that the FDA banned for poultry production in 2005. Antibiotics are given to industrially raised meat and poultry to make them grow more quickly. This particular class of drugs breeds so-called "superbugs" which cause antibiotic resistant infections in humans.

Arsenic, a known carcinogen, was found in every feather sample. "It has no place in the human food system," Sonya Lunder, Senior Research Analyst at the Environmental Working Group, told Yahoo! Shine. Arsenic is fed to chickens and hogs to improve the color of their flesh.

The majority of samples also contained acetaminophin, the active ingredient in Tylenol, and one-third of the samples contained the antihistamine used in Benadryl. The samples from China also showed traces of Prozac. Kristoff explains that all these substances are administered to chickens to reduce stress because that can slow their growth. The feathers also contained caffeine, presumably to counteract the effects of the other substances.

Kristoff points out that the research doesn't actually reveal how much of these chemicals the average consumer is actually eating and says more work needs to be done. In the meantime, if you are concerned about the possible ill health effects of adulterated poultry, you should buy organic. Lunder explains, "Organic chickens cannot be given antibiotics and hormones and therefore are a better option for those who can afford it." Nachman agrees: "I've been studying food-animal production for some time, and the more I study, the more I'm drawn to organic," he told the Times. "We [he and his family] buy organic."

Lunder thinks the meat industry is doing things backward by administering pharmaceuticals and other chemicals to animals that should be raised in better conditions in the first place. "There are countless recent examples of the problems caused by unsanitary facilities and the drive to make animals grow as fast as possible," she told Yahoo! Shine. "Animals are treated with high levels of antibiotics to promote growth and combat unsanitary conditions. We soak meat in ammonia, i.e. make pink slime, instead of requiring cleaner food processing centers."

Arsenic in organic foods

UPDATED: On Friday Tom Super, vice president of the National Chicken Council, refuted Nachman's studies. “As the study’s authors point out, this study looked only at feathers, not meat," he told Yahoo! Shine. "If consumers were to take away one message from the findings, it should be from the researchers themselves: ‘We haven’t found anything that is an immediate health concern.’"

Super pointed out that the chickens raised for meat are never given steroids or hormones. "It is illegal in this country," he said. Also, he added: "The U.S. does not import any chicken from China. Zero."

“Modern testing methodologies, like those used in this particular study, are extremely sensitive and can detect bioaccumulation of just about anything -- even if the compound or antibiotic has not been used in years or was never used," he said. "Chickens in the United States produced for meat are not given ‘arsenic’ as an additive in chicken feed, or any of the other compounds mentioned in these studies."

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