April 6th, 2012
07:46 PM ET
Is there "Arsenic in Our Chicken?" That's the title of a recent article by New York times columnist Nicholas Kristof that has caused an online feeding frenzy, so to speak.
The answer is yes - sort of. The claim of arsenic appears largely based on a study co-authored by Keeve E. Nachman in the journal Science of the Total Environment.
The study found levels of arsenic in feather meal, which is made from chicken feathers and used as feed for poultry, hogs and fish, among other things.
It turns out there are different kinds of arsenic, not all of which are considered poisonous. And, as the study's authors themselves point out in their paper, "There’s no evidence that such low levels of arsenic harm either chickens or the people eating them."
The National Chicken Council responded in a statement that "chickens in the United States produced for meat are not given 'arsenic' as an additive in chicken feed, or any of the other compounds mentioned in this study."
However, the council admits that some feed used to contain a product called Roxarsone, which is a molecule that includes organic arsenic, not the inorganic type that is considered a poison. The product was removed from market last year and is no longer used in raising U.S. chickens, according to the council.
It's not surprising to find arsenic on bird feathers because organic arsenic is naturally present in the air, soil and water, they said, adding that the testing methods used in the study are extremely sensitive and can detect a chemical or compound that hasn't been used in years, or was never used.
So why all the hullabaloo? Most likely because arsenic, like the ammonia-infused pink slime recently exposed in school and grocery store hamburger meat, does not sound like something we'd like to eat. And because arsenic is something most often associated with poison.
But every substance is poisonous in the right dose – even water.
"It's a question of concentration," said Tom Neuhaus, professor emeritus of food science at Cal Poly's Food Science and Nutrition Department.
Though Neuhaus is highly critical of mainstream chicken-farming practices, he is wary of condemning them on the basis of safe levels of arsenic found in feather meal.
"There's arsenic in chocolate and there's arsenic in every every breath of air you breathe, in every drop of water you drink," said Neuhaus who teaches about chocolate among other things at Cal Poly.
"It's not like cesium-137 (a deadly radioactive isotope) - you really don't want to have a single atom."
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