How Many Cancers are Caused by Arsenic-laced Chicken?

Image Credit: Stu Spivak / Flickr. This image has been modified.

Reducing Arsenic in Chicken and Rice

In 2013, Maryland became the first state to ban the feeding of an arsenic-containing drug to chickens. This arsenic-containing drug is used to control parasites and gives chicken meat an “appealing pink color.” In 2011, the FDA found that the livers of chickens fed this drug had elevated levels of inorganic arsenic, a known human carcinogen. In response, the drug’s manufacturer, Pfizer, voluntarily pulled the drug off the U.S. market. However, it’s still sold overseas—including to places that continue to export chicken back to us—and a similar arsenic-containing drug for use in poultry is still available in the United States. The Maryland ban was still some help, though; it kept Maryland farmers from using stockpiles of the drug.

How much arsenic gets into the actual meat and not just the internal organs? We didn’t know until recently. In a study highlighted in my video, How Many Cancers Caused by Arsenic-Laced Chicken?, researchers at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health coordinated the purchase of chicken breasts off grocery store shelves in ten cities across the country. They found that 70% of the samples of chicken meat from poultry producers that didn’t prohibit arsenic drugs were contaminated with the cancer-causing form of arsenic at levels that exceeded the safety thresholds originally set by the FDA (before the FDA relented and admitted that there’s really no safe level of this kind of arsenic).

When the drug was first approved, scientists believed that its organic arsenic base would be excreted unchanged (organic arsenic is much less dangerous than inorganic arsenic). Guess what appears to convert the drug into the carcinogenic form? Cooking. When chicken meat is cooked, levels of the arsenic-containing drug go down and levels of carcinogenic arsenic go up, suggesting the drug may degrade into the cancer-causing inorganic arsenic form during cooking.

How much cancer are we talking about? If we estimate that about three-quarters of Americans eat chicken, then the arsenic in that chicken has potentially been causing more than 100 cases of cancer every year. The John Hopkins researchers conclude that “eliminating the use of arsenic-based drugs in [poultry and pig] production could reduce the burden of arsenic-related disease in the U.S. population.”

Arsenic-containing drugs fed to chickens is one of the ways arsenic gets into rice. When we feed arsenic to chickens, the resulting arsenic-bearing poultry manure is introduced to the environment, soil, and water, and rice sucks it up from contaminated soil and can transfer it to people who don’t even eat chicken. There is massive environmental contamination from the poultry industry; nearly two million pounds of arsenic has been poured into the environment every year by the U.S chicken industry alone.

We’re even seeing arsenic in foods sweetened with organic brown rice syrup. It reminds me of the arsenic in apple juice story. Although the U.S. made lead and arsenic-based pesticides illegal years ago, they still persist in the soil, so even organic products are not immune.

There are other sources of arsenic (such as naturally occurring arsenic deposits), but arsenic-containing poultry drugs have been deliberately administered to animals intended for human consumption for 70 years. Consequently, exposures resulting from use of these drugs are far more controllable than are exposures from environmental sources. And the good news is that, thanks to a lawsuit from the Center for Food Safety and other consumer groups, three out of the four arsenic-containing drugs fed to poultry have been officially pulled from the market.

I’ve previously addressed this issue in my video Arsenic in Chicken. It’s nice to see there’s been some progress!

The antibiotics the poultry industry continues to feed chickens present another public health hazard. See my videos:

Cooking may also create other carcinogens from the muscle itself:

-Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here and watch my full 2012 – 2015 presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More than an Apple a Day, From Table to Able, and Food as Medicine.

Discuss

Michael Greger M.D., FACLM

Michael Greger, M.D. FACLM, is a physician, New York Times bestselling author, and internationally recognized professional speaker on a number of important public health issues. Dr. Greger has lectured at the Conference on World Affairs, the National Institutes of Health, and the International Bird Flu Summit, testified before Congress, appeared on The Dr. Oz Show and The Colbert Report, and was invited as an expert witness in defense of Oprah Winfrey at the infamous "meat defamation" trial.


30 responses to “Reducing Arsenic in Chicken and Rice

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  1. “And the good news is that, thanks to a lawsuit from the Center for Food
    Safety and other consumer groups, three out of the four
    arsenic-containing drugs fed to poultry have been officially pulled from
    the market.”

    Is the remaining one drug still being fed to poultry nationwide? Is there any progress on banning the drugs internationally so they’re not poisoning the rest of the world and U.S. chicken eaters who are consuming imported chicken?

    1. Along similar lines, does anyone actually monitor the use of these banned substances, seeing as how they have stockpiles of them stashed away?

      1. Not really. If you ask an old cowboy named Howard Lyman he’ll tell you ranches stockpile illegal drugs and still use them today. When I interviewed him once he said not in 35 years had the USDA ever came to his farm and asked questions.

    2. Seedy, thanks for your patience. Dr. Greger said “the problem is that there are still stockpiles of the drug in use presumably but I think the one on the market is only sold for turkeys”

      I also wrote a reply, here, (just below) about my interview with Howard Lyman back in 2008

      1. Thanks so much for following up on this! I’m not surprised by the answer. A sad state of affairs. And one of many reasons to avoid eating meat.

  2. I thought this was going to be an article on reducing arsenic in brown rice. Wash thoroughly and cook using “pasta” method – several cups of water per cup of rice – pour off excess water after cooking.

    100 cases of cancer per hundreds of millions people per year doesn’t sound alarming compared to other threats.

    1. Hey Paul. That’s a great method for reducing arsenic in rice. Thanks for sharing. It is important to note that the levels of arsenic in rice may not be as high when compared with other foods, and from the looks of it the main reason why our rice is contaminated with arsenic is due to poultry plants using it in the first place! Dr. Greger has some great resources on food and arsenic. ​He also compared arsenic levels of wild rice to brown rice in this Ask the Doctor Q&A.​

      1. How would you do that, exactly? The convenience of the rice cooker is that you add the correct amount of water and the rice comes out nicely without excess water.

      2. What’s happening is that by providing extra cooking water one is hopefully leeching out more of the arsenic in that water (and maybe nutrients:-( Its a pain, but what I sometimes do is strain the cooked rice and rinse in hot water (if I want to be extra anal about it) and put back in my pressure cooker in the “warm” mode to reheat and evaporate the remaining water. It really does take away from the convenience of a rice cooker or pressure cooker. Damn poultry farms!

  3. Thanks for continuing to bring to light Ways We Can Better Choose our Food. Without Exposure, People are kept Dumb, and that’s the way the food manufacturers want to keep it so you just blindly keep spending your money on what they offer. Start your Health path in a less toxic direction by getting the facts and share with your friends. It will make our world a better place to live.

  4. Dr. Greger: Thank you for the article. I eat rice three meals a day almost everyday, so I’ve been concerned about arsenic in rice. Is there a significant difference between white rice and brown rice with respect to the arsenic content?

    1. A guest member supplied us with a link that looked at rice from different countries. I’ll post it, here. It is important to note that the levels of arsenic in rice may not be as high when compared with other foods. Dr. Greger has some great resources on food and arsenic. ​He also compared arsenic levels of wild rice to brown rice in this Ask the Doctor Q&A.​ ​I think it’s valuable to note when reports like these are published that perhaps many other foods containing arsenic were not tested? I am not saying arsenic in rice is not concerning, but perhaps other foods also deserve awareness. The arsenic concentrates in the bran, so white rice would have less. I still do not think avoiding brown rice is necessary. In the report you can see what brands have the least. Let me know if this helps?

      1. Thank you Joseph and the guest so much for this article. I’d seen the original article in CR, but this is significantly revised and more detailed.

  5. Thanks Joseph and others here for the information and links. I have some reading to do. I’ve been wanting to switch my plant milk use to brown rice (but hesitate due to the arsenic), from my current cashew milk – it’s so delicious, and so easy to make – but I want a similarly easy, healthful alternative that I can make, with less fat. Anyone care to share their favorite, healthy, plant milk of choice (grain or seed)? Thank you! (BTW: I’ve made quinoa “milk” – it’s good/easy to make too). Maybe Dr. Greger has done a comparison on plant milks that I’ve missed. I’ll have to check that out too.

    1. You are welcome, Tanya! Here are some links to videos on plant vs. cow’s calcium and and updated video on the same topic, here. Here is one on Almond milk vs. Organic milk. The thought of making your own plant milks sounds amazing! Keep in mind it won’t have the vitamin and mineral core that is added to most plant-milks. However, you can certainly find those micronutrients elsewhere. I always suggest mixing it up a bit. I advocate for variety when it comes to foods like whole grains, beans, fruits, and veggies. The same could be said about plant-milks.

        1. Oh gotcha. Forgive me I was not trying to convince you (or anyone) to avoid cow’s milk. These videos are the only milk comparisons we have here so I thought I’d share. Sorry if you had already seen. Thanks for the recipe link I definitely need to try making my own!

          1. Oh – please, no apology needed! The links are great – they offer ample science as to why we should all be avoiding milk & dairy in our diets…Thanks again!

      1. Hey, I absolutely love oat milk, it’s super delicious and a bit sweeter than other plant milks. Homemade hazelnut milk is also good but I don’t know how high the fat content would be in that one. I hardly ever drink oat milk though because of the packaging (aluminum inside) but you could always make it yourself :)

  6. There may be a notion that organic brown rice has a lower arsenic level than conventional brown rice, but according to Lundberg farms, their California-grown organic and conventional brown rice had the same level of inorganic arsenic present when tested. Their test results are accessible via their website.

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