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No Arsenic In Pardoned Turkeys, But It Might Be In Yours

President Barack Obama pardons "Apple," the National Thanksgiving turkey, during a ceremony in the Rose Garden.
Susan Walsh
President Barack Obama pardons "Apple," the National Thanksgiving turkey, during a ceremony in the Rose Garden.

Apple and Cider, the two plump turkeys that President Obama pardoned today, were no doubt the luckiest of the 8.3 million birds the poultry company Foster Farms raised this year.

So while doing some scientific research on the turkeys' background, Shots stopped short at this sentence on the West-Coast based company's website: "Consumers can also be assured that Foster Farms does not use Roxarsone or any feed additives containing arsenic."

Arsenic -- the poison? In turkey? Apparently, yes.

The poultry industry has long mixed roxarsone, a form of arsenic, with feed to control stomach bugs and promote growth in animals. Some companies, like Foster Farms and Perdue, have stopped using it, but many have not.

And it turns out that arsenic can end up on the edible parts of turkeys (as well as in the waste). And this is very worrisome to a handful of scientists who study the links between industrial food production and health.

Keeve Nachman is the science director for the Center for a Livable Future at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. He studies arsenic in the food system and has recommendedto Congress and the state of Maryland (a big poultry producer) that it ban roxarsone from all poultry feed.

So how big a problem is it for humans?

According to the Poultry & Egg Institute, an industry group, "the benefits of continued use of roxarsone far outweigh the concerns expressed by the media and special interest groups."

But Nachman says certain chemical forms of arsenic are toxic and have been linked to cancer. Recent studies have shown that 65 percent of arsenic in poultry is the inorganic form – the bad one.

Even though poultry producers have been using roxarsone for decades, scientists have only just begun to study how it makes its way through the food chain to humans.

Recently, the Environmental Protection Agency, which is responsible for setting toxicity values for chemicals, reported that arsenic's cancer causing power is 17 times higher than previously believed.

But the FDA sets the tolerance for certain chemicals in meat. It originally set arsenic levels in 1950s and hasn't touched them since. The agency says arsenic consumption is safe at levels up to 0.5 parts per million in poultry muscle, and that roxarsone is just fine for use.

"But since then, there's been an enormous amount of research on the human health effects from arsenic exposure," says Nachman. And given the EPA's recent findings, "it seems irresponsible to rely on FDA's tolerances to protect public health."

How to steer clear of arsenic while the agencies quibble over how to regulate it? Nachman recommends organic turkey (and chicken) as the safest bet.

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