A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

Arsenic and Old Feathers

Today, yet another food revelation: Chickens on factory farms are routinely fed acetaminophen (as in Tylenol), along with the same antihistamine you find in Benadryl, the antidepressant that’s featured in Prozac, plus various antimicrobials, and, yes, arsenic.

The scientists who discovered this had to go about their work in a roundabout way, since factory farms are not required to reveal what drugs and poisons they feed to the birds. But since these chemicals all accumulate in the feathers, the scientists examined feather meal (which is used in the feed that’s given to other farm animals) to see what chemicals they could find.

One study focused on arsenic and found it in every sample of feather meal they tested.

The other, published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, looked for other kinds of drugs and found that the feather meal the scientists tested contained antibiotics called fluoroquinolones (which are actually banned for use among poultry since they breed superbugs that are resistant to antibiotics) along with the other drugs mentioned above.

There was also an abundance of caffeine in the samples. The chickens are apparently fed coffee pulp and green tea powder to keep them active so they eat more. So perhaps the purpose of the Benadryl is then to  sedate them somewhat. Whatever the case, the birds are continuously being pumped full of drugs and other chemicals that, apart from the damage they do to the chickens, all end up in you, too, if you eat factory-farm chicken.

In his New York Times column this morning, Nick Kristoff writes that he asked the United States Poultry and Egg Association for comment, but they replied simply that they had not seen the studies and had nothing more to say. No surprise there!

Kristoff also spoke with the scientist who co-authored both studies:

“We were kind of floored,” said Keeve E. Nachman, a co-author of both studies and a scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Center for a Livable Future. “It’s unbelievable what we found.”

… What does all this mean for consumers? The study looked only at feathers, not meat, so we don’t know exactly what chemicals reach the plate, or at what levels. The uncertainties are enormous, but I asked Nachman about the food he buys for his own family. “I’ve been studying food-animal production for some time, and the more I study, the more I’m drawn to organic,” he said. “We buy organic.”

Better yet, skip chicken altogether and go with an organic plant-based diet.