How does arsenic get into chickens?

Arsenic and chickens
Infected chicken photo by Mike Kemp / Getty Images

The reality that the majority of chicken eaten in the United States contains arsenic is a subject which pops into the news every so often. The latest headline is an FDA report revealing that an estimated (and whopping!) 70% of chicken consumed in the US contains arsenic. If you eat a lot of chicken, or, like me, if you know someone who eats a lot of chicken, that's a lot of arsenic to be consuming.

Read on to find out how and why chicken contains so much arsenic, and whether or not it should be a cause for concern or alarm..

Question: Why does chicken contain arsenic? How does arsenic get into chickens? 

Answer: Wondering why there is arsenic in chickens? The answer is quite simple- its in their feed as an FDA approved and legal additive. In other words, chickens eat a heckuva lot of arsenic, and it doesn't get eliminated through waste and stays, per the FDA, in chicken's "edible tissues". 

But because this is such a heated issue, let's take a step back and first establish that there is indeed, arsenic in chicken, and that it is, indeed, a bad thing.

Is there really arsenic in chicken that consumers eat, and if so, is that a bad thing? 

Yes. A New York Times article reporting on a university study out of Johns Hopkins found "levels of arsenic in chicken that exceeded amounts that occur naturally, and warned that they could lead to a small increase in the risk of cancer for consumers over a lifetime." The FDA allows this small amount of arsenic, believing it to be non-toxic, though admittedly the standards for arsenic have not been reviewed since 1940, per the article, and statements from the "National Chicken Council" brushing off the issue are less than reassuring, particularly, as the article explains, since per-capita consumption of chicken in the United States has nearly tripled in recent decades and at the end of the article, we learn that this such common practice that there are multiple companies selling arsenic-containing drugs to chicken farmers.


Having established that there is, indeed, arsenic in chickens, despite internet rumors and speculation on both sides of the aisle, let's take a deeper look at how the arsenic gets in chicken, or rather, why it's in their food.

This is a slightly more complex question: Why is there arsenic added to chicken feed?

The answer? To shave a few pennies off the cost of the mass production and slaughter of chickens. According to labels on chicken feed with arsenic, the products claim “increased rate of weight gain, improved feed efficiency, and improved pigmentation.” In other words, feeding chickens arsenic allows them to grow faster so they may be slaughtered at a younger age. Chickens which can be slaughtered younger eat less over the course of their short lifetime, thus reducing production costs (and increasing overall production of chicken) and, to translate "improved pigmentation" into consumer parlance, chickens which eat arsenic have an aesthetically appealing pinkish hue when slaughtered. (The European Union has ruled that arsenic may not be added to chicken feed.)

Perhaps the scariest thing about this excessive use of arsenic in animal feed is that all this arsenic does not just disappear- it stays in the environment. As such, even us vegetarians are not safe from the harmful effects of unsafe industrialized factory farming practices.

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See also: Vegetarian chicken substitutes