Arkansas Farmers Sue Pfizer, Tyson Foods Over Arsenic in Rice

Three Arkansas farming operations have filed suit against pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, Tyson Foods Inc. and three other Arkansas poultry producers, alleging arsenic found in Arkansas rice is caused by farmers' use of chicken litter as fertilizer.

The lawsuit (PDF), filed in Circuit Court in Stuttgart by Hare Wynn Newell & Newton LLP of Birmingham, Ala., seeks class-action status. In addition to Pfizer, of New York, and Tyson, of Springdale, the suit names as defendants Pilgrim's Pride Corp. of Greeley, Colo., Simmons Foods Inc. of Siloam Springs, George's Farms Inc. of Springdale and Peterson Farms Inc. of Decatur.

Consumer Reports last month reported that it had found "worrisome" levels of inorganic arsenic, a cancer-causing agent, in rice and a number of rice products consumed widely in the U.S. and called for the federal government to set limits on arsenic in rice.

The consumer group tested more than 200 rice products and found varying levels of arsenic, including some that it termed "significant."

"White rice grown in Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, and Texas generally had higher levels of total arsenic and inorganic arsenic than rice samples from elsewhere (India, Thailand and California combined)," Consumer Reports said.

In the lawsuit filed late last month, the three Arkansas farming enterprises allege that Pfizer manufactures additives containing arsenic that are then sold to the poultry industry for use in chicken feed. The additives are used to foster the growth of broiler chickens and prevent an intestinal disease in chickens called coccidiosis, the suit says.

The suit says that chicken litter, which contains chicken waste, is used by rice farmers as fertilizer. This litter winds up contaminating the soil and, ultimately, the rice crop, according to the suit.

The poultry growers "knew that excessive arsenic in chicken litter used as fertilizer on many rice farms in Arkansas would contaminate the entire U.S. rice crop and infiltrate the general U.S. rice supply, and that public news about such arsenic contamination would result in devastating financial losses to U.S. and Arkansas rice producers ...," the suit says.

The suit's plaintiffs are John Alter and Kenneth Graves, both of Arkansas County, and Mark and Joyce Hargrove of DeWitt. All are rice farmers, the suit says.

The suit seeks class-action status to represent all rice farmers in Arkansas. It seeks both compensatory and punitive damages to be determined at trial.

Gary Mickelson, a Tyson spokesman, said, "We’re still reviewing the lawsuit, but will say it appears to be an example of creative lawyers trying to use frivolous litigation to extract money from companies that have done nothing wrong. We will vigorously defend ourselves. None of our chickens are given feed additives containing arsenic."

A spokesman for Simmons declined comment, and spokesmen for the other companies did not immediately return phone calls.