Last week, a bill in the Maryland legislature that would have banned the use of arsenic in chicken feed was killed. Since the introduction of the bill in February, a public controversy has arisen over this little-known poultry industry practice. The months of debate, culminating in this week’s disappointing defeat, force us to closely question what goes into the food that we eat and whether industrial kosher meat production truly upholds Jewish values — ethical treatment of animals, protection of the environment and care for our own bodies.
In 1944, the Food and Drug Administration approved roxarsone, an arsenic-containing organic compound, for use in chicken feed. This metallic element, which in some forms is a powerful poison, is used “for increased rate of weight gain, improved feed efficiency, and improved pigmentation” of chicken. It also protects against parasites, according to a report by Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. These broadly worded designations allow for widespread use. Indeed, the routine practice of industrial poultry producers is to dose chicken feed with roxarsone and other pharmaceuticals in order to get as much meat as possible as quickly as possible from each bird. But exposure to certain types of arsenic in humans causes cancer and may contribute to other health problems, including high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, and impaired intellectual function.
Roxarsone is widely used in American poultry production, including in kosher brands, says the report. Jewish law places no restrictions on industrial feed additives in kosher animals. Halacha concerning ethical treatment of animals mandates that we give our animals enough to eat, but the sages never imagined making provisions for the murky ethical situation created when industrial producers feed chickens huge amounts of chemical-laden foods to make them grow rapidly.
Much of the roxarsone fed to chickens passes into chicken waste, which is then spread to the environment in the form of fertilizer, compost, cattle feed, and incinerated waste. The arsenic in this waste can then contaminate water, air, and soil, in violation of the Jewish teaching to care for the earth and protect it (Genesis 2:15).
The arsenic that doesn’t make its way into the environment accumulates in the animals’ muscles, which is then ingested by humans who eat them. The poultry industry maintains that use of roxarsone is safe for humans because the arsenic in roxarsone is in a different chemical form from the type shown to cause cancer; however, it can convert to this more dangerous form both inside chickens and inside people, explains the IATP.
Jewish law also teaches that saving a life takes precedence over any other commandment. Given that arsenic is a known carcinogen and can be dangerous even at low levels, all possible steps should be taken to limit exposure. The use of arsenic in poultry production unnecessarily risks human health and is not necessary to raise chickens. Not every American poultry producer uses roxarsone, and the practice is banned in the European Union. Unfortunately, there is no way to tell from the label of supermarket chicken, kosher or conventional, whether or not it was added to the chicken’s feed. Only poultry raised on additive-free feed can be counted on to be arsenic-free.
The defeat of the Maryland ban, despite its support by environmental groups and concerned individuals, is a sobering call to question the ensconced meat industry and its power in government. Maryland lawmaker, Tom Hucker, said, “this is an issue that makes sense to ten out of ten people,” and yet, common sense was not enough to ban an irresponsible practice over the protests of a powerful and profitable poultry industry.
Where do we go from here? By raising awareness about the issue, popular opinion against roxarsone use could lead more states to propose bans and put crucial support behind those initiatives. Public opinion could also pressure poultry companies to stop using a compound that has dubious benefits and well-known costs.
When it comes to the Jewish values of treating our animals, our earth, and ourselves with humanity and respect, our food choices have power to shape a more ethical and healthier world. We can write off the Maryland bill’s failure as evidence of the food industry’s unshakable power, or we can take it as a challenge to reclaim power over our own foods. By carefully considering what practices we support on our Shabbat dinner tables and by raising awareness about practices we choose not to accept, we can change our food system for the better.
Amy Radding is a senior at Yale University, where she is studying as much as she can about sustainable food. Her questioning of industrial (including kosher) meat practices has led her to intern with KOL Foods, a company that provides kosher meat produced in a ethical and environmentally-friendly way. She prefers her arsenic-free, kosher, pasture-raised chicken spatchcocked and pan-roasted with lemon and rosemary.