Thoughts on Arsenic in our Chickens

Just one strand of your hair can determine what kind, if any drugs are in your system. For chickens, this works the same way, except of course, a  feather instead of a hair tells the story.

Breed: New Hampshire Red

Breed: New Hampshire Red

In recent years, it has come to light that the industrialized chickens have, so-to-speak, been failing drug tests for decades! Not only have they tested positive for banned antibiotics as well as the active ingredients in Tylenol, Benadryl, and even Prozac, but arsenic has also shown up in many of the tests. The use of arsenic is no new surprise to many old time farmers. My friend, Fred DePaul, sheep shearer and farm manager at the Calvin Coolidge State Historic Site in Plymouth, Vt, has had more years of farming experience than anyone I know and he remembers years and years ago  farmers actually dousing their sheep in arsenic to prevent lice and mites. . . a little unnerving right? Since then, less hazardous replacements have been used, but apparently traces are still being fed to chickens in the industrial farms.

Since this has been brought to light, the media has raised all kinds of questions, concerns, and presumptions. Some sources have said arsenic has actually been used to  irritate the chickens throat. The chickens then eat more grain in order to soothe it and thus fatten up quicker.  Peter Brown, aka, “The Chicken Doctor” talked with me more on the arsenic matter at the Poultry Congress on Saturday and he takes a completely different stance on the topic. Mr. Brown stands 100%  behind  the use of arsenic and told me the claim that it is used to irritate chicken’s throat is completely false . He explains that if there was an irritation, the chickens would refrain from eating altogether. According to him,  arsenic is actually  used to prevent a strain of coccidiosis and causes the chickens overall health to improve dramatically. As far as the worry of us ingesting arsenic laced chicken goes, he believes that there is nothing to worry about because it’s in such trace amounts that it would have no affect. In addition, he states that arsenic already naturally occurs in trace amounts in the environment, so it’s nothing terribly new to the chickens or to us.

Peter Brown’s different perspective was definitely fascinating, but I have many other questions that I didn’t get time to ask  his opinion on. For instance, what happens when this arsenic from the chicken farms leaks out into the surrounding environment? Small quantities per chicken is one thing, but a farm raising thousands of chickens all ingesting small traces of arsenic seems like it could really add up and result in a detrimental effect on surrounding streams and the rest of the  land.. Another concern of mine is that since arsenic is used to prevent a strain of coccidiosis, doesn’t that make it like any other antibiotic? The issue of antibiotics alone raises a whole other array of commonly discussed issues, like the potential  for an anti-resistant “super-bug” to evolve.

According to Pfizer, the company that originally sold 3-Nitro, a drug containing organic arsenic,  the amount of organic arsenic in a single chicken is equivalent to what we drink in one glass of water. Recently, however, a study done by the FDA showed levels of the cancerous inorganic arsenic in chicken. How is this possible? According to an additional study, organic arsenic can transform into the more dangerous kind. Due to this finding, Pfizer was forced to discontinue it’s sales in the US.

The issues at stake here are a little scary. It’s always comforting to think that there is one clear obvious answer, but sometimes the answer isn’t always black and white. Sometimes the answer lies in the shades of gray, like the color that you get when you cross a Barred Rock hen and a Silver Laced Wyandotte rooster.


8 thoughts on “Thoughts on Arsenic in our Chickens

  1. Hi Laura,
    I’ve also heard that arsenic is used as an appetite stimulant, although I didn’t get the part about throat irritation. The one question I think still needs to be addressed is why do we raise chickens in such a way that we need to feed them poison to keep them healthy? We raise our birds here with no antibiotics, no hormones, and certainly no arsenic. It’s only when we have huge corporate “farms” that are so out of scale with the environment that these kinds of things happen.

    Also, I totally agree that we need to consider the environmental effects of farms feeding arsenic to tens of thousands of chickens. That’s why the manure coming out of those places is, and needs to be treated as, toxic waste.

    Nice post,


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