“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 they originally were only testing for antibiotics but testing 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.”
Arsenic is fed to poultry because it reduces infections and makes flesh a more appetizing shade of pink. Low levels of arsenic are not believed to harm either chickens or the people eating them.
Bird feathers, like human fingernails, accumulate chemicals and drugs that an animal is exposed to. Scientists from Johns Hopkins University and Arizona State University examined feather meal, a poultry byproduct made of feathers.
One study, published in Environmental Science & Technology, found that feather meal 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”. 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 and a majority of feather meal contained acetaminophen, the active ingredient in Tylenol. Samples from China contained an antidepressant that is the active ingredient in Prozac.
Benadryl, Tylenol and Prozac are used to reduce anxiety among chickens, because stressed chickens have tougher meat and grow more slowly.
Researchers also found that most feather-meal samples contained caffeine. Chickens are often fed coffee pulp and green tea powder to keep them awake so that they can spend more time eating.
The other peer-reviewed study found arsenic in every sample of feather meal tested. 9 in 10 broiler chickens in the United States had been fed arsenic, according to a 2011 industry estimate.
Poultry farmers often don’t know what chemicals they feed their birds. Big food companies require farmers to use a proprietary food mix, and farmers typically don’t know exactly what is in it.
The studies looked only at feathers, not meat, so it’s not known exactly what chemicals reach the plate, or at what levels.
When asked about what the food he buys for his family, Nachman said he buys organic.
“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.”
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