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.