By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
Published: April 4, 2012
New York Times
Let’s hope you’re not reading this column while munching on a chicken sandwich.
That’s because my topic today is a pair of new scientific studies suggesting that poultry on factory farms are routinely fed caffeine, active ingredients of Tylenol and Benadryl, banned antibiotics and even arsenic.
“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.”
He said that the researchers had intended to test only for antibiotics. But assays for other chemicals and pharmaceuticals didn’t cost extra, so researchers asked for those results as well.
“We haven’t found anything that is an immediate health concern,” Nachman added. “But it makes me question how comfortable we are feeding a number of these things to animals that we’re eating. It bewilders me.”
Likewise, I grew up on a farm, and thought I knew what to expect in my food. But Benadryl? Arsenic? These studies don’t mean that you should dump the contents of your refrigerator, but they do raise serious questions about the food we eat and how we should shop.
It turns out that arsenic has routinely been fed to poultry (and sometimes hogs) because it reduces infections and makes flesh an appetizing shade of pink. There’s no evidence that such low levels of arsenic harm either chickens or the people eating them, but still...
Big Ag doesn’t advertise the chemicals it stuffs into animals, so the scientists conducting these studies figured out a clever way to detect them. Bird feathers, like human fingernails, accumulate chemicals and drugs that an animal is exposed to. So scientists from Johns Hopkins University and Arizona State University examined feather meal — a poultry byproduct made of feathers.
One study, just published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, Environmental Science & Technology, found that feather meal routinely contained a banned class of antibiotics called fluoroquinolones. These antibiotics (such as Cipro), are illegal in poultry production because they can breed antibiotic-resistant “superbugs” that harm humans. Already, antibiotic-resistant infections kill more Americans annually than AIDS, according to the Infectious Diseases Society of America.
The same study also found that one-third of feather-meal samples contained an antihistamine that is the active ingredient of Benadryl. The great majority of feather meal contained acetaminophen, the active ingredient in Tylenol. And feather-meal samples from China contained an antidepressant that is the active ingredient in Prozac.
Poultry-growing literature has recommended Benadryl to reduce anxiety among chickens, apparently because stressed chickens have tougher meat and grow more slowly. Tylenol and Prozac presumably serve the same purpose.
Researchers found that most feather-meal samples contained caffeine. It turns out that chickens are sometimes fed coffee pulp and green tea powder to keep them awake so that they can spend more time eating. (Is that why they need the Benadryl, to calm them down?)
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