Arsenic Suit Seeks To Pit Arkansas Chicken and Rice Sectors Against Each Another

by Jan Cottingham  on Monday, Nov. 19, 2012 12:00 am  

A lawsuit seeks to pit Arkansas’ iconic rice industry against its iconic chicken industry, freighting what had been a happy pairing in Arkansas agriculture with the fear of “devastating” financial losses.

The furor stems from a Consumer Reports article released Sept. 19 on arsenic contamination in rice that renewed concerns about the element in chickens and prompted a cascade of controversy. That article was followed soon after by the release of preliminary data on arsenic in rice by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, which announced plans for further study.

Among the ensuing developments:

• A lawsuit by four Arkansas rice farmers alleging the use of poultry litter as fertilizer had contaminated their rice crops with inorganic arsenic, a cancer-causing agent;

• A temporary suspension by South Korea of U.S. rice imports;

• Calls by congressmen for more information and introduction of a bill to address the issue; and

• An investigation by University of Arkansas scientists.

The state is home to a $3.6 billion poultry industry and a $1.2 billion rice sector. Arkansas is the top rice-producing state, producing about 47 percent of rice grown in the U.S. So the question of whether litter, or waste, from the state’s largest livestock sector is tainting the state’s largest crop, as the farmers’ lawsuit alleges, hits home hard.

Uncertainty, however, clouds the case because arsenic is a naturally occurring element, found in soil and water and other situations that have nothing to do with chicken waste. The issue then becomes how much arsenic is too much and what is its source.

In addition, the Arkansas Rice Federation, a trade group representing the rice industry in Arkansas, has made clear that it’s not a party to the rice farmers’ lawsuit and doesn’t support it. The Arkansas Poultry Federation, meanwhile, denies the suit’s claims and calls it “irresponsible.”

A History of Concern

In its Sept. 19 statement, the FDA said: “Based on the currently available data and scientific literature the FDA does not have an adequate scientific basis to recommend changes by consumers regarding their consumption of rice and rice products.”



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