Rice Farmers Suing Drug Company and Poultry Industry for Contaminating Their Crop with Arsenic
Three Arkansas farming operations have filed a class-action lawsuit against Pfizer, Tyson Foods, and three Arkansas poultry producers over arsenic detected in their rice.1
The lawsuit claims the defendants "knew that excessive arsenic in chicken litter used as fertilizer on many rice farms in Arkansas would contaminate the entire U.S. rice crop and infiltrate the general U.S. rice supply, and that public news about such arsenic contamination would result in devastating financial losses to U.S. and Arkansas rice producers."
Is Contaminated Chicken Litter the Culprit?
The suit comes on the heels of a Consumer Report issued last month, which reported it had found "worrisome" levels of inorganic arsenic in various rice products sold across the U.S. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), there is no real 'safe' level of exposure to inorganic arsenic, which is a well-known cancer-causing toxin. Consumer Reports found that white rice grown in Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, and Texas all had higher levels of arsenic than rice samples from other locations, including India, Thailand and California.
As reported by Arkansas Business:2
"...the three Arkansas farming enterprises allege that Pfizer manufactures additives containing arsenic that are then sold to the poultry industry for use in chicken feed. The additives are used to foster the growth of broiler chickens and prevent an intestinal disease in chickens called coccidiosis... The suit says that chicken litter, which contains chicken waste, is used by rice farmers as fertilizer. This litter winds up contaminating the soil and, ultimately, the rice crop.
...The suit seeks class-action status to represent all rice farmers in Arkansas. It seeks both compensatory and punitive damages to be determined at trial.
Gary Mickelson, a Tyson spokesman, said, 'We're still reviewing the lawsuit, but will say it appears to be an example of creative lawyers trying to use frivolous litigation to extract money from companies that have done nothing wrong. We will vigorously defend ourselves. None of our chickens are given feed additives containing arsenic.'"
Majority of CAFO Chickens Still Get Arsenic-Laced Chicken Feed
It was only last summer that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced a "voluntary suspension" of Pfizer's arsenic-laced drug Roxarsone, which has been widely used on chicken CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operations) to control an intestinal parasite that allows the chickens to feed more productively and grow faster. It also makes the chicken meat appear pinker (i.e. "fresher").
Roxarsone has been used in chicken feed since the 1940s. More than 70 years later, the FDA conducted an analysis that found chickens treated with the drug do in fact have arsenic in their livers – and as a result, manufacturer Pfizer agreed to stop selling the drug (brand name 3-Nitro) in July of last year.
One of the many reasons I've long recommended avoiding conventionally raised chicken is because of the potential for it to contain arsenic. Some of the larger chicken producers, including Tyson and Perdue, claim they phased the drug out several years ago. Tyson reportedly quit using arsenic compounds in 2004,3 however, the plaintiffs in this case claim that:4
"...Each Poultry Industry Defendant manufactures its own feed formula to be used by its respective growers/hatchers. Each Poultry Industry Defendant includes (or, as recently as 2011, included) '3-Nitro' Roxarsone to some degree in their formula and, as such, manufactures and designs the feed formula each deems optimal."
Tyson is one of the Poultry Industry Defendants in this case. Hopefully this trial will unearth the truth about whether or not they've actually quit using 3-Nitro... As of 2007, the majority – 70 percent – of the 9 billion broiler chickens produced annually in the United States were still being fed Roxarsone.5
Roxarsone – Another Toxic Debacle Demonstrating the Necessity of Holistic Safety Studies
Roxarsone, manufactured by Pfizer, was the first arsenic-based product approved for use in animal feed. Its alleged safety was based on the fact that it contains organic arsenic, which is less toxic than the other inorganic form, which is a known carcinogen. However, after decades of use, scientific reports began surfacing stating that the organic arsenic in Roxarsone could transform into inorganic arsenic.
According to a 2007 report in Chemical and Engineering News:
"...a team led by James A. Field of the department of chemical and environmental engineering at the University of Arizona reported that under anaerobic conditions, roxarsone is converted to inorganic arsenic within eight months after poultry litter is spread on fields.6 'Roxarsone is not very toxic,' Field says, 'but in anaerobic environments, it is transformed into highly toxic forms.'
...Chicken manure introduces huge quantities of arsenic to agricultural fields. According to Donald L. Sparks, professor of marine studies at the University of Delaware, poultry litter is spread on land at the rate of 9 to 20 metric tons per hectare.
One reason for the increasing concern about Roxarsone is that the weight of evidence for arsenic as a carcinogen is much greater now than it was a decade ago. In 2001, EPA proposed reducing the maximum contaminant levels for arsenic in drinking water from 50 ppb to 10 ppb and required water systems to comply by January 2006. The agency took this action in response to three National Research Council reports that concluded the standard of 50 ppb posed unreasonable risks. And even the new lower maximum appears problematic. According to EPA estimates, the risk of cancer from 10 ppb of arsenic in tap water is 1 in 2,000, a 50-fold higher risk than that allowed for most other carcinogens."
Besides cancer, other health risks associated with chronic arsenic exposure include, according to the EPA:
Kidney damage and failure Anemia Low blood pressure Shock Headaches Weakness Delirium Increased risk of diabetes Adverse liver and respiratory effects, including irritation of mucous membranes During development, increased incidence of preterm delivery, miscarriage, stillbirths, low birth weight, and infant mortality During childhood, decreased performance in tests of intelligence and long-term memory Skin lesions
The Many Problems Associated with CAFO-Style Farming
In related news, on October 10, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced that Tyson Foods in Arkansas had issued a nationwide recall of misbranded chicken containing undeclared allergens:7
"Tyson Foods, Inc., a Pine Bluff, Ark. establishment, is recalling approximately 67,269 pounds of packages labeled as Honey BBQ Flavored Boneless Chicken Wyngz because of misbranding and undeclared allergens. Buffalo Style Boneless Chicken Wyngz were packaged in bags meant for Honey BBQ Flavored Boneless Chicken Wyngz and contain the allergens milk, soy and egg, which are not declared on the Honey BBQ Flavored Boneless Chicken Wyngz label."
What these stories have in common is the problematic nature of confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and the mass-production of processed food. Here, Tyson's recall was due to mixing up the packaging, exposing those with known food allergies to potential health risks, but at least it was not a contamination issue. Still, mass produced foods are FAR more prone to disease-causing contamination than smaller scale traditional farming and food production. The trend of large corporate-controlled CAFOs making up the lion's share of U.S. food production has lead to an abundance of cheap food, but not without consequence. This includes:
- Negative impact on soil quality through such factors as erosion, compaction, pesticide application and excessive fertilization
- Loss of water quality through nitrogen and phosphorus contamination in rivers, streams and ground water (which contributes to "dramatic shifts in aquatic ecosystems and hypoxic zones"). Agricultural pesticide contamination to streams, ground water and wells, and safety concerns to agricultural workers who use them
- A decline in nutrient density of 43 garden crops (primarily vegetables), which suggests "possible tradeoffs between yield and nutrient content"
- Large emission of greenhouse gases including carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide
- Dramatically increased prevalence of disease among the animals, which not only leads to excessive use of veterinary drugs (which end up in the meat and subsequently on your plate), but also increases the risk of foodborne illness. Mass production of processed foods heightens the risk of widespread contamination, as well as cross-contamination between ingredients when several foods are processed in the same plant
Industrial agriculture also raises concerns about the welfare of farm animals and the farmers themselves. Several investigators have secretly taped the horrific conditions and animal abuses occurring at various CAFO's, be it dairy cows, turkeys, swine, or chickens. The U.S. government has a history of supporting these CAFOs, both by looking the other way when abuse or contamination occurs, and by directly subsidizing cheaply produced beef, and corn and soy used for feed.
The only reason CAFOs are able to remain so "efficient," bringing in massive profits while selling their food for bottom-barrel prices, is because they substitute subsidized crops for pasture grazing. However, altering a chicken's feed to what equates to a human junk food diet clearly has far-reaching consequences, and none of them are beneficial for health – not for the chicken, and not for you.
Two Models of Food Production
There are basically two different models of food production today. The first, and most prevalent, is the large-scale agricultural model that takes a very mechanistic view toward life, whereas the other – the local, sustainable farm model – has a biological and holistic view.
The widely adopted factory farm food system has now reached a point where the fundamental weaknesses of it are becoming readily apparent, and obvious side effects include food borne disease, loss of nutrient content, and contamination with a wide variety of toxic chemicals – including arsenic via chicken waste produced by CAFO chickens. This contamination runs through the entire food chain, from soils, to water, to meat products and produce...
The fact that rice grown in certain areas now contains troublesome levels of inorganic arsenic originating from chicken feed is just one of many examples of how the CAFO and Big Ag system is failing in its mission to produce safe, nutritious food.
It's a proven fact that factory farmed and processed foods are far more likely to cause illness than unadulterated, organically-grown foods. For example, one study by the British government found that 23 percent of farms with caged hens tested positive for salmonella, compared to just over 4 percent in organic flocks, and 6.5 percent in free-range flocks. Contamination occurred most often at farms that contained the most birds, typically 30,000 or more. This connection should be obvious, but many are still under the mistaken belief that a factory operation equates to better hygiene and quality control, when the exact opposite is actually true.
A few months ago, I visited Joel Salatin at his Polyface farm in Virginia. He's truly one of the pioneers in sustainable agriculture, and he gave me a complete tour of his farm operation, which includes an ingenious and easily duplicable chicken coop. This setup is a far cry from the CAFO model in which each chicken is given less space than a letter-sized piece of paper and never sees the light of day.
Resources for 'Real Food'
A website called Real Food University8 offers a fascinating analysis of where our food comes from, and reveals that despite what you hear on the news, every year we produce less and less of the food we really need. From massive industrial farming conglomerates to feedlot – and CAFOs to contaminated imports, Real Food University delivers the scoop on what you probably have on your plate right now.
Fortunately there are ways to get around these food disasters, and sourcing your foods from a local farmer is one of your best bets to ensure you're getting something wholesome. Every state has a sustainable agriculture organization or biological farming organization that is the nucleus of the farmers in that state. You can also find an ever increasing number of "eat local," and "buy local" directories, in which local farms will be listed.
The following organizations can also help you locate farm-fresh foods in your local area:
- Local Harvest – This Web site will help you find farmers' markets, family farms, and other sources of sustainably grown food in your area where you can buy produce, grass-fed meats, and many other goodies.
- Farmers' Markets – A national listing of farmers' markets.
- Alternative Farming Systems Information Center – Community Supported Agriculture (CSA).
- Eat Well Guide: Wholesome Food from Healthy Animals – The Eat Well Guide is a free online directory of sustainably raised meat, poultry, dairy, and eggs from farms, stores, restaurants, inns, and hotels, and online outlets in the United States and Canada.
- Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA) – CISA is dedicated to sustaining agriculture and promoting the products of small farms.
- FoodRoutes – The FoodRoutes "Find Good Food" map can help you connect with local farmers to find the freshest, tastiest food possible. On their interactive map, you can find a listing for local farmers, CSA's, and markets near you