ANNAPOLIS – The state attorney general and some legislators in both houses are backing a ban on arsenic in chicken feed, a move they say will help poultry farmers and the environment.
But industry representatives say the measure would disadvantage Maryland farmers and result in more sick chickens.
Bills filed in the House and Senate would ban the use, sale and distribution of any commercial poultry feed with additives that contain arsenic. Tuesday, the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs committee heard testimony on its version of the bill.
“Most people are unaware that arsenic is in their chicken and in their chicken feed,” Attorney General Douglas Gansler told the committee.
Gansler in June wrote an opinion column in the Washington Post arguing the Food and Drug Administration should ban arsenic from chicken feed. Tuesday, he said a ban in Maryland would benefit the poultry industry and the environment.
“Nobody wants arsenic on their farms,” he said.
Numerous poultry industry representatives disagreed.
Roxarsone, a widely used feed additive that contains arsenic, is “a tool to improve bird health and welfare,” said Bill Satterfield, executive director of Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc., a trade organization for the poultry industry on the Delmarva peninsula.
The additive is used to prevent an intestinal ailment that weakens a chicken’s gut and causes nutrients to pass through the bird without being absorbed. Coccidiosis is “probably the most costly chicken disease in the U.S.,” Satterfield said.
Banning the use of roxarsone would put Maryland chicken growers and feed producers at an economic disadvantage, and result in “a lot more sick birds, a lot more dead birds,” he said.
Elizabeth Krushinskie, a veterinarian who serves as director of quality assurance and food safety at Mountaire Farms in Delaware, called roxarsone an “essential and critical tool.”
But not all poultry farmers use roxarsone. Perdue stopped using additives that contain arsenic about three years ago, said spokesman Luis Luna.
The Salisbury-based company chooses not to use the additive because it has “worked hard to have an approach to bird health that works without the use of arsenic. … That’s good animal husbandry and best management practices that produced that result,” Luna said.
Still, Perdue does not support the bill, Luna said.
“The science doesn’t support a ban right now. It isn’t clear,” he said. “If people believe it’s a safety issue, then they can take it up with the FDA. Right now, it’s about emotion and sloganeering, which creates confusion, and not about a review of the science, which is what we trust the FDA to do.”
Sen. Paul Pinsky, D-Prince George’s, asked Krushinskie how she could call the additive “essential” if some farms don’t use it. Pinsky is the sponsor of the bill.
Krushinskie said the additive is “essential from a bird-health perspective.”
“It’s inhumane to withhold effective … treatment from sick animals,” she said, comparing it to withholding antibiotics from a sick child.
Gansler and Pinsky said the arsenic passes through the chicken and comes out in manure, which is used as fertilizer and could pollute the soil and the Chesapeake Bay. Arsenic occurs naturally in the environment, but it has been linked to cancer and other negative health effects, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Merry Eisner, a representative for the Maryland PTA, asked senators to support the ban.
Children love to eat chicken — and dirt, she said. Parents want it to be “clean chicken, and clean dirt.”