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Arsenic is a poison with a notable list of victims, including Britannicus, the only son of Roman Emperor Claudius; Pope Pius III; Pope Clemente XIV; and, maybe, Napoleon Bonaparte.
None of those potentates or popes got sick or died from eating chicken, and, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, today's consumers also are safe when they eat poultry, even if the birds have been fed an arsenic additive.
Others aren't so sure.
Although 95 percent of the arsenic additive passes through the chickens and ends up in the litter, some ends up in the animals' tissues, including the meat. Some estimates say 65 percent of what remains in the birds is the bad, inorganic arsenic.
While the FDA has set limits for arsenic of 0.5 parts per million in uncooked poultry muscle tissue, the U.S. Department of Agriculture does not test for arsenic in the breast and thigh chicken meat, cuts consumers eat most often. Instead, it typically tests for arsenic only in chicken livers.
A report in April by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy says it found widely varying levels of arsenic in various brand-name supermarket and fast-food chicken it tested.
The Minneapolis-based nonprofit environmental research and advocacy organization said the arsenic readings appeared to be related to the use of arsenic in feed, and that arsenic was more than twice as prevalent in conventional brands of chicken than in organic or other premium brands. (A summary of arsenic test results can be found at www.iatp.org/iatp/search.php.)
None of the brands sampled exceeded the FDA standards for arsenic, but science and eating habits have changed considerably since they were set. According to the institute report, some forms of arsenic are more toxic than previously thought, and cumulative human exposures are probably higher than previously thought.
One reason is that American consumers eat at least 21/2 times more chicken today than they did 40 years ago.
People can limit or eliminate the arsenic they consume by buying chicken directly from farmers who don't use the additive, or from certified organic chicken farms, or via the online Eat Well Guide at eatwellguide.org.
Birds sold under "organic" labels legally can't be fed arsenic. But use of arsenic is not prohibited for chickens labeled as kosher or "all natural" or "free range."
-- Don Hopey