Pass the turkey, hold the arsenic

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With Thanksgiving just around the corner, U.S. Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) would like to remind you that the turkey defrosting in your fridge might be poisonous.

You see, that turkey may contain roxarsone, a food additive that poultry producers use to fight off parasites and help young chicks grow. But it is a derivative of arsenic, which isn’t necessarily the healthiest thing to eat. As the CDC warns:


“Ingesting very high levels of arsenic can result in death. Exposure to lower levels can cause nausea and vomiting, decreased production of red and white blood cells, abnormal heart rhythm, damage to blood vessels, and a sensation of “pins and needles” in hands and feet.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has declared that consumption of arsenic is safe at levels up to 0.5 parts per million in poultry muscle, and that roxarsone is OK to use. But Israel is not convinced. And so he has introduced a bill – the Poison Free Poultry Act of 2009 (H.R.3624).

On Monday, he held a news conference in his Long Island district to emphasize the gravity of the situation. According to a report in Newsday, he pointed to a bird and declared, “There is no good reason to be injecting poison into this turkey.”

Israel noted that the FDA’s safety threshold was set more than 30 years ago, and is in dire need of updating in light of medical research linking arsenic to such health problems as cancer and diabetes.

He has the support of Keeve Nachman, science director of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future. In a statement published on the center’s blog, he writes that:

“Studies have shown that some of the arsenic fed to chickens remains in the edible portions of the birds. Arsenic has also been found in poultry waste, where it poses environmental and human health risks when the waste is managed, often by spreading on agricultural fields as fertilizer for food crops.”

The center has endorsed Israel’s bill, along with the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, the Humane Society of the United States, The Clean Water Network, Huntington Breast Cancer Action Coalition, Food & Water Watch, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, Waterkeeper Alliance, Illinois Citizens for Clean Air & Water, the Organic Consumers Assn., Food Animal Concerns Trust (FACT), Ohio Environmental Council, Friends of the Earth, the Center for Food Safety, Citizens Campaign for the Environment, Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity and Friends of Family Farmers, according to Israel’s website.

So far, the bill has zero co-sponsors in Congress, and it’s stuck in the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. It’s unclear when – or if – it could become law, so in the meantime Nachman advises consumers to consider organic turkeys, which are roxarsone-free.

Or, if you don’t mind salt, you can try a completely meat-free alternative.

-- Karen Kaplan