Quantcast

Big Pharma Cover Up: Hiding Significant Levels of Arsenic in Your Chicken

Insights + Opinion

Until last year, small, yet significant levels of arsenic may have laced your chicken dinner, but Big Pharma really didn’t want you to know. And once again, industry influence over government prevailed over protecting public health.

In a classic case of the fox guarding the chicken coop, Alpharma, a former subsidiary of the major pharmaceutical company Pfizer, was recently found to be colluding with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) behind closed doors to delay and downplay public release of important information about risks of one of its livestock drugs. Those closed doors have now been thrown wide open.

Until last year, small, yet significant levels of arsenic may have laced your chicken dinner.
Photo credit: Shutterstock

After filing a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request and having to sue the agency to get the documents, Food & Water Watch recently obtained internal documents ranging from formal letters to e-mails between Pfizer and the FDA. The trail of breadcrumbs reveals just how far Big Pharma will go to protect its interests, and just how easily the FDA gave in—at the expense of public health and food safety.

Here’s the deal: Decades ago, the FDA approved the use of drugs containing arsenic for use in chickens, turkeys and pigs. It says these drugs can be used for growth promotion and to treat and prevent disease. The catch is, the FDA recognizes the organic form of arsenic as safe, while inorganic arsenic is considered a carcinogen that may lead to health effects from lung, bladder or skin cancer, to heart disease, diabetes, neurological problems in children and more.

Alpharma produced and sold roxarsone, or “3-Nitro,” an arsenical animal drug, for use in animal feeds. And while roxarsone was deemed an organic, “safe” form of arsenic (and had been approved by the FDA since 1944), some scientists began to question its safety. The FDA caught on, and when Alpharma could not provide more information, the FDA sought to test the theory that roxarsone remains in the safer form after the chickens metabolize it—or when it moves to the chicken’s poop.

By 2009, the FDA began to test the theory using advanced technology, despite initial pushback from Alpharma. Here begins the long conversation between Pfizer and Alpharma, and the FDA, the former two working hard to keep roxarsone on the market and their coffers full.

Based on its study, the FDA found that levels of very harmful, inorganic arsenic were higher in chicks treated with the drug than in untreated chicks. Ah-ha! But when the FDA shared these results with Pfizer, noting that using inorganic arsenic in animal feed violates a federal ban on carcinogens in food (and should therefore be removed from the food chain), Pfizer put up all of its guards.

Food & Water Watch’s analysis of FOIA documents reveals that Pfizer initially disagreed with the adequacy of the study, and its representatives pressured the FDA to alter its public communications about it. FDA and Pfizer then agreed to work together on a strategy to release the results. And it turns out that the FDA not only allowed Pfizer to delay removal of the drug in the U.S. and continue its sale abroad, the agency also compromised with the company to delay the release of the report and avoid using language about how roxarsone threatens human health.

How could the FDA, the government agency responsible for protecting public health and food safety, allow a drug company to exert so much influence over it? Why would it let Pfizer write portions of its press release, change the headings and completely omit the term “arsenic” from the media materials all together?

Pfizer indeed agreed to (voluntarily) suspend sales of the drug, as the final title of the FDA’s press release (“Company Takes Action in Response to FDA Data”) benignly states. But it was only after a 2013 John Hopkins study that the FDA finally withdrew approval of the drug. For some not-so-strange reason, the FDA refuses to take action on similar arsenical drugs like nitarsone.

We cannot allow this kind of industry-driven PR game continue to dominate government regulators. Food & Water Watch, public health researchers and food advocates will continue to call for a ban of arsenic-based drug approvals for use in animal feed. We will also continue to expose these sketchy relationships because the people's health is more important than Big Pharma’s profits.

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE

Report Exposes Walmart’s Dirty Energy Secret

Investigation Exposes Revolving Door Between Fossil Fuel Lobbyists and Politicians

Groups Sue Ohio Governor for Illegally Making State a Fracking Waste Dump

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO) speaks during the North American Building Trades Unions Conference at the Washington Hilton April 10, 2019 in Washington, DC. Zach Gibson / Getty Images

Colorado senator and 2020 hopeful Michael Bennet introduced his plan to combat climate change Monday, in the first major policy rollout of his campaign. Bennet's plan calls for the establishment of a "Climate Bank," using $1 trillion in federal spending to "catalyze" $10 trillion in private spending for the U.S. to transition entirely to net-zero emissions by 2050.

Read More Show Less
Foto-Rabe / Pixabay

When Trump's Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced its replacement for the Obama-era Clean Power Plan in August 2018, its own estimates said the reduced regulations could lead to 1,400 early deaths a year from air pollution by 2030.

Now, the EPA wants to change the way it calculates the risks posed by particulate matter pollution, using a model that would lower the death toll from the new plan, The New York Times reported Monday. Five current or former EPA officials familiar with the plan told The Times that the new method would assume there is no significant health gain by lowering air pollution levels below the legal limit. However, many public health experts say that there is no safe level of particulate matter exposure, which has long been linked to heart and lung disease.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
A crate carrying one of the 33 lions rescued from circuses in Peru and Columbia is lifted onto the back of a lorry before being transported to a private reserve on April 30, 2016 in Johannesburg, South Africa. Dan Kitwood / Getty Images

By Andrea Germanos

Animal welfare advocates are praising soon-to-be introduced legislation in the U.S. that would ban the use of wild animals in traveling circuses.

Read More Show Less
A tornado Monday in Union City, Oklahoma. TicToc by Bloomberg / YouTube screenshot

Extreme weather spawned 18 tornadoes across five states Monday, USA Today reported. Tornadoes were reported in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri and Arizona, but were not as dangerous as forecasters had initially feared, the Associated Press reported.

Read More Show Less
A woman walks in front of her water-logged home in Sriwulan village, Sayung sub-district of Demak regency, Central Java, Indonesia on Feb. 2, 2018. Siswono Toyudho / Anadolu Agency /Getty Images

A new study has more than doubled the worst-case-scenario projection for sea level rise by the end of the century, BBC News reported Monday.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Matt Cardy / Stringer / Getty Images

The Guardian is changing the way it writes about environmental issues.

Read More Show Less
Blueberry yogurt bark. SEE D JAN / iStock / Getty Images Plus

By Lizzie Streit, MS, RDN, LD

Having nutritious snacks to eat during the workday can help you stay energized and productive.

Read More Show Less
A 2017 flood in Elk Grove, California. Florence Low / California Department of Water Resources

By Tara Lohan

It's been the wettest 12 months on record in the continental United States. Parts of the High Plains and Midwest are still reeling from deadly, destructive and expensive spring floods — some of which have lasted for three months.

Mounting bills from natural disasters like these have prompted renewed calls to reform the National Flood Insurance Program, which is managed by Federal Emergency Management Agency and is now $20 billion in debt.

Read More Show Less