Just as we’re starting to relax after the recent mad-cow scare comes word that another popular protein source, chicken’specifically young chickens, the type most commonly eaten’harbors an insidious and infamous poison. Eating chicken has been linked to various types of food poisoning, usually caused by organisms such as salmonella and campylobacter, the latter the most common source of food poisoning. A two-year study conducted by the Minnesota Department of Health found that 88 percent of poultry sampled from local supermarkets tested positive for campylobacter.
In the latest study young chickens slated for the grocery store were analyzed and found to contain far higher levels of arsenic than expected.1 Arsenic is a heavy metal found in both organic and inorganic forms in water, food, soil, dust, wood and other materials. The inorganic form of arsenic is officially classified as a human carcinogen, or cancer-causing substance. It is associated with cancers of the skin, respiratory system, bladder and prostate, as well as with high blood pressure and kidney ailments.
Among the symptoms of acute arsenic exposure are gastric distress and nausea, which also happen to be the primary symptoms of gastroenteritis, better known as food poisoning. The question is, how young chickens accumulated so much of the poison.
It turns out that arsenic is an approved dietary supplement for chickens. An arsenic-based drug called Roxarsone is routinely added to chicken feed for the purpose of controlling intestinal parasites. While the chickens excrete most of the arsenic, they retain more of it in their tissues than was previously believed. In fact, young chickens contain three to four times more arsenic than other poultry and meats.
The study found that with an average chicken intake of two ounces a day, a person would get 3.6 to 5.2 micrograms of inorganic arsenic. Those who eat more than that, which must include bodybuilders, can take in 10 times that much. A daily exposure of 10 to 40 micrograms of inorganic arsenic is linked to its cancer risks.
While all that sounds alarming, a person weighing 220 pounds would be getting an average of 0.37 to 0.54 micrograms of inorganic arsenic per kilogram of bodyweight a day from eating chicken, which is still less than the established tolerable intake of two micrograms of inorganic arsenic a day per kilogram of bodyweight.
If you’re worried about the arsenic in chicken, you’ll be relieved to learn that high doses of vitamin C neutralize many of its effects, as does the trace mineral selenium. In addition, high-protein, lowfat foods minimize or prevent the toxic effects of small doses of inorganic arsenic. Perhaps the best course for those concerned about eating arsenic-laced chicken is to eat only the kind raised without antibiotics or other food additives.
1 Lasky, T., et al. (2004). Mean total arsenic concentrations in chicken 1989’2000 and estimated exposure for consumers of chicken. Environ Health Perspect. 112:18-21.