Fowl Find: Researchers Discover Arsenic, Antibiotics, and Prozac in Chickens

As if you didn’t have your own diet to worry about, now you have to wonder what the grocery-store chickens have been eating as well.  

Originally testing for traces of banned antibiotics, researchers from Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health and Arizona State University were surprised to find the antibiotics, as well as evidence of an entire cocktail of drugs, including caffeine, arsenic, antihistamines, acetaminophen, and for chicken imported from China, even Prozac.  

The study, published in both Environmental Science & Technology and Science of the Total Environment, was conducted by testing feather meal, which is directly converted from chicken feathers. Their reason for testing feathers, rather than meat? “The potential [for antibiotics] to bioaccumulate in poultry feathers,” according to the paper’s abstract.  

While the news is disconcerting, it shouldn’t exactly come as a shock. Back in 2004, a study by The Institute of Agriculture and Trade Policy revealed that as many as half of store-bought and fast-food chicken products contained heightened levels of arsenic. The source? Roxarsone, an arsenic compound used to stave off infections and parasites, increase growth, and give the poultry meat a pretty pink hue. Plus, factory farm investigations have long been warning consumers of the flurry of antibiotics given to animals, antibiotics capable of creating superbugs.  

Nevertheless, the findings are disturbing.  

“The discovery of certain antibiotics in feather meal strongly suggests the continued use of these drugs, despite the ban put in place in 2005 by the FDA,” said the study’s lead author, Bloomberg School microbiologist David Love, in a statement prepared for the press. “The public health community has long been frustrated with the unwillingness of [the] FDA to effectively address what antibiotics are fed to food animals.”    

The drug levels found “aren’t an immediate health concern,” added co-author Keeve E. Nachman of Johns in an interview with The New York Times. “But it makes me question how comfortable we are feeding a number of these things to animals that we’re eating.”    

Nachman’s comments resonate with a growing number of American consumers concerned with the ‘secret ingredients’ hiding on store shelves. In the past months, uproars have accompanied revelations on pink slime, pesticides, and even crushed bugs found at Starbucks.   

This time around, though, the news is slightly more scandalous; a test of organic brands turned up positive for arsenic, meaning that no chicken-eater is safe. And even more baffling yet, most farmers aren’t even aware of this news themselves, serving their chickens food mixes chosen by the companies to which they sell their products.    

Companies prefer to use the drugs for a variety of reasons: caffeine, in the form of green tea powder and coffee pulp, to help chickens stay awake, resulting in more time and energy to eat; acetaminophens, antihistamines, and yes, Prozac too, because less-stressed chickens grow faster and taste better.    

So, what’s a consumer to do? While Nachman doesn’t think the results are grounds to cluck at chicken entirely, he does suggest that a switch from factory-farmed poultry may be in order.    

“I’ve been studying food-animal production for some time, and the more I study, the more I’m drawn to organic.”    

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