One of the things I love about our backyard hens – we know exactly what they eat. We are on our second set, having lost 5 of the original 6 to illness or predators (two died from illness, the others from a hawk attack, racoons, and possibly a coyote or fox). We feed them calcium and chicken feed from the farm store, but also table scraps of fruits and veggie cuttings, or brown lettuce from the fridge, or moldy bread. They are healthy and lay daily eggs. It’s nice having some control over our food, but it’s good to know that our food supply from the supermarket is safe, because even though we have a vegetable garden and fresh egg, there are quite a few things I like to buy at the market.

The New York Times just alerted us to a new caution – arsenic in food. In this new case, chicken. According to some new research coming out of Johns Hopkins, trace amounts of arsenic were found in the chicken they sampled. Arsenic is linked to cancer in humans. A medicine used in chickens to reduce intestinal parasites, roxarsone, is suggested to increase the arsenic levels. The drug however, has now been banned, yet the chicken samples in this study were from prior to the ban – 2010 and 2011.

Here is a short summary of some of the findings:

  • Arsenic traces were found in about half the samples
  • Federal standards for drinking water is anything less than 10 parts per billion, but there is no standard for food. However, the level of potential exposure from diet is proposed to be 80% lower than from water.
  • The levels of inorganic arsenic found in the study samples were very low – about 1/2 part per billion in the organic chicken samples and 2 parts per billion in the non-organic chicken (or as study authors put it: “levels of inorganic arsenic were four times higher than the levels in USDA Organic chicken”).

Does 0.5-2 parts per billion sound like a problem to you? The National Chicken Council doesn’t think it’s a problem, and so far, I’d have to agree.

Best bet: eat normal (smaller) servings of a variety of foods. There are numerous natural-occurring chemicals, including arsenic, in our environment, and our bodies are built to handle most of them. It’s the dose that makes the poison, so simply add variety to the diet (as opposed to eating rice and chicken four times per week). Have a vegetable at each meal, decreasing your starchy side dish. Enjoy smaller portions of protein foods like chicken, but also include lean beef, pork or lamb is you like. Have a meatless meal with beans and vegetables once a week too. Balance it out, and don’t get alarmed at every news story you read.