Sometimes you set out to test for antibiotics but get a bonus; in this case, diphenhydramine, arsenic, and fluoxetine.


Well, there is a science basis to some of what sounds pretty horrid in that opening sentence.  Small quantities of arsenic lead to fewer infections (be comforted that arsenic has a well-defined threshold where it is beneficial or harmful) and since arsenic is totally 'organic' it can just as easily be found in any animal on an organic farm too. Arsenic will build up in something like fingernails or feathers but it is not in the meat; if you are convinced it is, think of the paranoia about thimerosal, the mercury-containing preservative in vaccines, that remained long after it was known that it was not accreting in baby bodies.  Heck, the President of the United States was still claiming vaccines might cause autism in his 2008 campaign, but it was silly even then.

So trace amounts of arsenic in feathers is understandable and okay, even if it sounds bad.  Caffeine too, we're not in the scare journalism business here at Science 2.0.

But fluoroquinolones? I am not some shrill natural-fetishist, I get that fluoroquinolones are essential to treating serious bacterial infections, like hospital-acquired infections where resistance to older antibacterials has been acquired, but human resistance to fluoroquinolones can develop rather quickly.  They are illegal in chicken farming for that reason, yet there they were, in 6 of 10 U.S. samples despite being banned from the poultry industry since 2005.  We should be a little cautious about finding that in feather meal and, really, start looking in the meat too.

And anyone in a Whole Foods buying organic food from China or any other country where there is no certification process already had the caveat emptor part of their brains removed and therefore I don't want to pick on them, but they don't deserve to be ingesting acetaminophen with their chicken just because they are gullible. When did being a chicken become so stressful anyway?

Caffeinated chickens eat more, so they get bigger.  But stressed out chickens are tough, so they need to be calmed down with Prozac.  Arsenic keeps them healthy and...okay, I now want a hot dog instead.  Photo: Shutterstock

To the public, there's simply a comfort issue - the precautionary principle is a moving target for each person.  I trust GMOs, for example, more than I trust food at an organic market even though I am more of a 'natural' food person than almost anyone I would meet at an organic market.  Most people shopping at organic markets have never killed, cleaned and processed an animal but if I had that kind of authority in my house every piece of meat would be hunted or raised by me (I do not have that kind of authority in my house, as my wife will tell you). Most people are not paranoid anti-business types about food; American agriculture has led the world in ethical standards, environmentalism and dematerialization - we grow a terrific amount of food on far less land than it would have required even two decades ago - but that is because most people regard the CEOs of food companies, and the scientists working at those companies, the same way they regard anyone; basically ethical, with kids of their own, who care about the world. Once that perception and trust is lost - and I am not saying it has been, trace amounts of something in feathers is not a sign of a corporate conspiracy - it is very difficult to gain back.

Are farmers part of some evil agenda?  No.  I grew up in a farming community, we had chickens and steers and I had no idea what was in the feed.  I bet no one at the Agway where we bought the feed had done any chemical testing on the feed either.  Today, many farmers are even told what feed to use by the company buying the chickens, it's kind of a secret sauce to optimize deliciousness and cost, so they have little control. But farmers are the ones most likely to be implicated if there is a problem so they should be leading the charge to make sure nothing is creeping into farm animals.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof spoke with Keeve Nachman of Johns Hopkins about some of their findings, who said, "We haven't found anything that is an immediate health concern. But it makes me question how comfortable we are feeding a number of these things to animals that we're eating. It bewilders me."

Me too. The downside to any perception of the food industry not rigorously policing their own practices is not that Big Government will suddenly do it for them - that is going to happen anyway, government does not exist to shrink - but that consumers will begin to invoke the precautionary principle for good reasons and not the kooky reasons anti-science hippies invoke now.  Some companies have taken the initiative, even if it seems to be partly marketing. Perdue Farms doesn't use growth hormones, they proudly state - well, those are illegal, so that is what I mean about marketing -  and only use antibiotics when a veterinarian says a chicken needs it, not for growth, which is a good thing.  Still, perception will be hard to shake and if one part of the industry is implicated the whole thing will be. 

'Better safe than sorry' will be a reasonable premise if the alternative is getting chicken from China that has Prozac in it.

Citation: D. C. Love, R. U. Halden, M. F. Davis, and K. E. Nachman, 'Feather Meal: A Previously Unrecognized Route for Reentry into the Food Supply of Multiple Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products (PPCPs)', Environ. Sci. Technol., 2012, 46 (7), pp 3795–3802 March 21, 2012 DOI: 10.1021/es203970e