cheaspeakeChicken houses along the Pocomoke River, which empties into the Chesapeake BayPhoto: IAN

As a jaded observer of the meat industry, even I’m flummoxed by this fact: It’s standard practice on factory chicken farms to dose those unfortunate birds with arsenic. The idea is that it makes them grow faster — fast growth being the supreme goal of factory animal farming — and helps control a common intestinal disease called coccidiosis.

The industry emphasizes that the arsenic is applied in organic form, which isn’t immediately toxic. “Organic” in the chemistry sense, that is, not the agricultural sense — i.e., molecules containing carbon atoms as well as arsenic. Trouble is, arsenic shifts from organic to inorganic rather easily. Indeed, “arsenic in poultry manure is rapidly converted into an inorganic form that is highly water soluble and capable of moving into surface and ground water,” write Keeve E. Nachman and Robert S. Lawrence of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future.

Inorganic arsenic is the highly poisonous stuff — see the absurd and wonderful Cary Grant classic Arsenic and Old Lace, or the EPA’s less whimsical take here and here [PDF]. The fact that the organic arsenic added to feed turns inorganic when it makes its way into manure is chilling, given the mountains of concentrated waste generated by factory poultry farms.

Unfortunately, one of the few places the poultry industry has chosen to concentrate itself is on the Delmarva Peninsula, a tri-state (Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia) land spit that juts out into the Chesapeake Bay, historically one of the nation’s most productive fisheries and now nearly an ecological wasteland. Some 1,700 chicken operations produce 11 million chickens per week on this relatively small spit of land. As Nachman and Lawrence point out, the Delmarva poultry industry generates a shit-ton (my word, not theirs) of manure: between 12 million to 39 million tons every year. How much inorganic arsenic makes it into Delmarva groundwater from that fecal onslaught? Food and Water Watch speaks:

Researchers estimate that between 11 and 12 metric tons of arsenic are applied to agricultural land there every year via poultry waste. Groundwater tests on both sides of the Chesapeake Bay’s Coastal Plains found arsenic in some household wells reaching up to 13 times the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) tolerance limit.

Then there’s the question of arsenic traces in industrial chicken meat. In 2006, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) tested chicken samples from supermarkets and fast-food joints — and found that 55 percent contained detectable arsenic. Citing the EPA, IATP reckons that 55 percent of arsenic found in poultry meat is inorganic, i.e., toxic. And here’s another way arsenic from poultry feed gets into the food supply: the jaw-dropping, mind-boggling practice of feeding chicken shit to cows. But that’s a topic for another post — one, in fact, that I’ve already written.

So how did the practice of dosing poultry with arsenic come to pass — and what are the regulatory agencies doing about it? Food and Water Watch’s Patty Lovera explains that the practice got the green light during the FDR administration, when the science on arsenic was much less advanced. According to Lovera, the government hasn’t revised its standards for arsenic levels in poultry, “even as chicken consumption has increased dramatically.” As for testing, well, it’s so lax as to be functionally nonexistent:

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s program for testing broiler chickens for arsenic residues conducts startlingly few tests. Between 2000 and 2008, the USDA tested only 1 out of every 12 million domestically produced chickens (or .00008 percent). In 2005 and 2008, the department conducted no tests for arsenic residues in domestically produced broilers.

Perhaps in despair over the blasé attitude of federal regulators toward arsenic, members of the Maryland legislature, joined by state Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, are pushing a bill to ban the state’s poultry giants from treating feed with arsenic, The Baltimore Sun reports. Predictably, the legislature’s more agribiz-aligned elements are resisting. “We seem to be in a mode where the state policy is to drive these guys [giant poultry factories] out of Maryland,” one poultry-fied state rep told The Sun.

But that’s absurd on its face. Some corporate poultry producers including Purdue, sensing that arsenic-laced feed might not send a great marketing message, have already banned it from their feed. In other words, the old industry line that it’s simply impossible to raise chickens without arsenic is nonsense. Here’s hoping that the Maryland arsenic-banning bill passes — and that it shames the federal government into following suit.