2012: The Arsenic Ban Passes
Chicken producers routinely add a drug containing deadly arsenic to all their chicken feed. Arsenic causes cancer, heart disease, and diabetes, all of which are on the rise. The FDA has found that some arsenic stays in the chicken itself, while most of it becomes toxic chicken litter that is spread across Maryland agricultural fields as fertilizer. Nearly 30,000 pounds of arsenic enters our food supply, soil, and water each year, and we have been allowing this since 1946. So for three years, I have introduced legislation to ban arsenic from agriculture.
Pfizer and the chicken industry furiously lobbied against my bill, but we assembled a grassroots coalition that included nurses and pediatricians’ associations, the entire environmental community, the Maryland NAACP, and others, and succeeded in finally passing my bill. Maryland becomes the first state to ban arsenic in agriculture, and other states are lining up to try to follow our lead.
In 2010, I introduced legislation to prohibit poultry companies from adding arsenic-based compounds to their poultry feed. Together with the Chesapeake Bay Fund, Food & Water Watch and others we made a strong showing at the hearing. Unfortunately, the bill was not voted out of committee. Over the interim, we worked hard to build a stronger coalition for the next legislative session.
In 2011, I reintroduced this legislation, HB 754, with Senator Paul Pinsky. Together with new partners including the Maryland NAACP, Johns Hopkins University’s Center for a Livable Future, the Maryland Sierra Club, the Maryland Nurses Association, Environment Maryland, Baltimore’s Woodberry Kitchen, and others, we held two strong hearings speaking to the numerous, lethal consequences of the estimated 15 metric tons of arsenic introduced into our environment from harmful feed additives. The bill was assigned to be studied in the interim.
Researchers from the University of Maryland’s Harry R. Hughes Center for Agro-Ecology would finish their review of the scientific literature in the Fall of 2011 and release their findings in a report called “The Environmental Concerns of Arsenic Additivies in Poultry Litter.” The paper found that levels of arsenic on some Eastern Shore fields treated with arsenical fertilizer were “beyond remediation”, and that the practice was “unsustainable”.
At the national level, concerns from my office and others led to an FDA study on the product. In June of 2011, Michael R. Taylor, FDA deputy commissioner for foods, stated, “FDA detected increased levels of inorganic arsenic in the livers of chickens treated with 3-Nitro, raising concerns of a very low but completely avoidable exposure to a carcinogen.” While FDA would not push for a ban, they worked with Pfizer to temporarily pull the product from the market.
Momentum to Win
These two key studies coupled with three years of education and coalition-building led to the passage of my bill to ban arsenic from poultry feed here in Maryland. For environmentalists and health advocates the struggle against these arsenical products is speeding up. In the second half of 2012, legislatures in three other states are considering ban bills and the topic has picked up considerable momentum.