Illegal Drugs in Chicken Feathers

Illegal Drugs in Chicken Feathers
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By testing chicken feathers for chemical residues, researchers aim to find out what the poultry industry is feeding their birds. The presence of banned drugs and a broad range of pharmaceuticals raises concern, recalling the time in which DES was fed to chickens for years after it was shown to cause human vagina cancer.

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Between 1940 and 1971, the synthetic estrogen DES was prescribed to several million pregnant women with the promise that it would help prevent miscarriages. Problems were first highlighted in 1953 when it was clear that not only was DES ineffective, but might actually be harmful. However, a powerful and emotive advertising campaign ensured that its use continued until 1971, when it was found to cause cancer of the vagina in the daughters of the mothers who took it. DES was also used to stunt the growth of girls who were predicted to grow “abnormally tall.” As one pediatric textbook put it in 1968, "excessive tallness in girls can be a handicap. It provides difficulty in the purchase of smart clothes; the victim is ineligible for certain sought-after professional positions such as air line hostess, and poses problems in selecting suitable dancing partners.”

But most people don't know that the greatest usage of DES was by the livestock industry, improving feed conversion in cattle and chickens. Within a year of approval it was fed to millions of farm animals, and although it was shown to be a human carcinogen in 1971, it was not until 1979 that all use of DES in the meat industry production was banned. Now, they just use different synthetic estrogen implants, but even now decades after DES was banned, we’re still seeing the effects, an elevation in birth defects even down to the third generation.

Arsenic is another human carcinogen that was fed to chickens. This time by the billions. The arsenic ends up not only in the meat, as I’ve talked about previously, but also in the feathers, which are fed back to the animals. See, a third of the bird is inedible. What do they do with billions of pounds of heads, bones, guts, and feathers? Fertilizer and animal feed. Feather meal is fed back to chickens, pigs, cows, sheep, and fish. Now straight feathers are not particularly nutritious, so guts, heads, and feet may be added for little extra protein, and manure added for those manure minerals. The problem is that feather meal used as animal feed could contribute to additional arsenic exposure in persons who consume meat.

This gave researchers an idea, though. By testing feather meal, they might be able to find out what else chickens are fed. “Feather Meal: A Previously Unrecognized Route for Reentry into the Food Supply of Multiple Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products.” All samples tested positive for antibiotic type drugs, between two to ten different kinds in each sample, including fluoroquinolones, which have been banned for years. So either the poultry industry is illegally still using the stuff or it’s being used in some other animals fed to the chicken. Regardless, when the feather meal is fed back to the chickens they are getting exposed to this drug, which is against the law to feed to chickens, creating a cycle of re-exposure to banned drugs.

Then it just gets weirder. The feathers turned up with a half dozen other drugs: Prozac, antihistamine, fungicide, a sex hormone and caffeine. Why doesn't the poultry industry just say no? Evidently the antihistamines are to combat the respiratory problems from packing so many tens of thousands into the confinement sheds, and the caffeine helps keeps the chickens stay awake so that they eat more and grow faster.

To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video. This is just an approximation of the audio contributed by Katie Schloer.

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Images thanks to Thomas Kriese via Flickr.

Between 1940 and 1971, the synthetic estrogen DES was prescribed to several million pregnant women with the promise that it would help prevent miscarriages. Problems were first highlighted in 1953 when it was clear that not only was DES ineffective, but might actually be harmful. However, a powerful and emotive advertising campaign ensured that its use continued until 1971, when it was found to cause cancer of the vagina in the daughters of the mothers who took it. DES was also used to stunt the growth of girls who were predicted to grow “abnormally tall.” As one pediatric textbook put it in 1968, "excessive tallness in girls can be a handicap. It provides difficulty in the purchase of smart clothes; the victim is ineligible for certain sought-after professional positions such as air line hostess, and poses problems in selecting suitable dancing partners.”

But most people don't know that the greatest usage of DES was by the livestock industry, improving feed conversion in cattle and chickens. Within a year of approval it was fed to millions of farm animals, and although it was shown to be a human carcinogen in 1971, it was not until 1979 that all use of DES in the meat industry production was banned. Now, they just use different synthetic estrogen implants, but even now decades after DES was banned, we’re still seeing the effects, an elevation in birth defects even down to the third generation.

Arsenic is another human carcinogen that was fed to chickens. This time by the billions. The arsenic ends up not only in the meat, as I’ve talked about previously, but also in the feathers, which are fed back to the animals. See, a third of the bird is inedible. What do they do with billions of pounds of heads, bones, guts, and feathers? Fertilizer and animal feed. Feather meal is fed back to chickens, pigs, cows, sheep, and fish. Now straight feathers are not particularly nutritious, so guts, heads, and feet may be added for little extra protein, and manure added for those manure minerals. The problem is that feather meal used as animal feed could contribute to additional arsenic exposure in persons who consume meat.

This gave researchers an idea, though. By testing feather meal, they might be able to find out what else chickens are fed. “Feather Meal: A Previously Unrecognized Route for Reentry into the Food Supply of Multiple Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products.” All samples tested positive for antibiotic type drugs, between two to ten different kinds in each sample, including fluoroquinolones, which have been banned for years. So either the poultry industry is illegally still using the stuff or it’s being used in some other animals fed to the chicken. Regardless, when the feather meal is fed back to the chickens they are getting exposed to this drug, which is against the law to feed to chickens, creating a cycle of re-exposure to banned drugs.

Then it just gets weirder. The feathers turned up with a half dozen other drugs: Prozac, antihistamine, fungicide, a sex hormone and caffeine. Why doesn't the poultry industry just say no? Evidently the antihistamines are to combat the respiratory problems from packing so many tens of thousands into the confinement sheds, and the caffeine helps keeps the chickens stay awake so that they eat more and grow faster.

To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video. This is just an approximation of the audio contributed by Katie Schloer.

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Images thanks to Thomas Kriese via Flickr.

Nota del Doctor

I guess we shouldn’t be surprised by anything coming from an industry that fed chickens literally millions of pounds of arsenic-containing drugs. See Arsenic in Chicken and my follow-up, How Many Cancers Have Been Caused in Arsenic-Laced Chicken?

The drugs fed to chickens are one reason used to explain why poultry has been tied to increased cancer risk. See Chicken Dioxins, Viruses, or Antibiotics?.

The most concerning drugs currently in the U.S. poultry supply are the antibiotics. See, for example:

Ironically, not only may antibiotics in chicken contribute to antibiotic resistant infections, but to the infections in the first place. Check out my video Avoiding Chicken to Avoid Bladder Infections

Then as if adding potentially harmful chemicals to the chickens themselves wasn’t bad enough, more are added in the processing plant: Phosphate Additives in Chicken.

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