The Food and Drug Administration says some chicken meat may contain small amounts of arsenic, though the agency is stressing that the amount is too tiny to be dangerous to people who eat it.
The FDA said Wednesday that a new study developed by the agency shows that an ingredient in chicken feed that contains arsenic, called Roxarsone, may make its way into parts of the bird that are eaten. Previous studies have indicated that the arsenic was eliminated with chicken waste.
Pfizer,which makes the feed ingredient, said Wednesday that it will pull it off the market in the United States. Had the company not stopped sales, the FDA could have eventually banned the product since it contains a known carcinogen.
Many poultry producers have already stopped feeding their birds the ingredient, which has been used since the 1940s to kill parasites and promote growth.
The FDA said that people should not stop eating chicken that may have been treated with the drug. Michael Taylor, FDA's deputy commissioner for foods, said the study raised "concerns of a very low but completely avoidable exposure to a carcinogen."
Pfizer said in a statement that a subsidiary, Alpharma, is suspending sales next month in response to the FDA findings. The company said it is not withdrawing the ingredient immediately, so producers have time to transition their birds off the drug.
Scott Brown of Pfizer Animal Health's Veterinary Medicine Research and Development division said the company also sells the ingredient in about a dozen other countries. He said Pfizer is reaching out to regulatory authorities in those countries and will decide whether to sell it on an individual basis.
In a study of 100 chickens, the FDA found that chickens that had eaten the Roxarsone had higher levels of inorganic arsenic — as opposed to organic arsenic, which is naturally occurring — in their livers than chickens which had not eaten the Roxarsone. Inorganic arsenic is more toxic than the naturally occurring form.
Roxarsone has long been a concern for environmental and consumer groups worried about its presence in chicken waste and the resulting effects on human health in areas with high chicken production. Maryland state lawmakers have attempted to force a ban in that state, saying the arsenic ends up in the Chesapeake Bay.
The National Chicken Council, which represents companies that produce and process chickens, said in a statement that the ingredient has been used to maintain good health in chickens for many years, and that it is used in "many, but not all" flocks.
"Chicken is safe to eat," the group said.