The fight against arsenic in Maryland's food started about three years ago and in April the state's General Assembly passed a ban against its usage in any food, including chicken.
He was one of the leading legislators against the use of chemicals in food that included arsenic and would be the first to tell you that achieving victory wasn't easy. Patch sat down with Del. Hucker to understand his motivations for taking on this is specific issue.
Patch: Making sure that arsenic isn’t used in chicken has been a top
agenda for you. Can you talk about the some of the challenges you
faced pushing this measure through?
Del. Tom Hucker (D-Montgomery): Since chickens are Maryland's largest agricultural product, the chicken industry and their allies in the Farm Bureau are some of the most powerful special interests in Annapolis. They hire very effective lobbyists, and they spent a lot of time and money fighting this legislation over three years. And they were willing to mislead the lawmakers. The poultry industry falsely testified for years that no arsenic (from drugs) ends up in the chicken or in the environment.
But research by the FDA and the University of Maryland has now exposed that as a complete lie. Second, this is really the federal government's job.
Patch: How did you find out about the issue of arsenic in chickens?
Hucker: This issue was brought to my attention by a constituent who's an EPA scientist who had seen the EPA ignore this issue for years. But it's difficult to get state legislators to do the job the federal government is supposed to be doing. We have been adding 30,000 pounds of arsenic to our food stream and environment in Maryland each year since 1946. But since the FDA approved this arsenic-containing drug, the EPA hasn't done anything to address the environmental damage of all the arsenic introduced into the environment. They should have acted on this long ago. At times, the Maryland General Assembly has stepped up to enact good policy for Maryland when the federal government hasn't done its job.
Patch: How do you feel about your success on this issue?
Hucker: I'm very proud of how hard my staff and our allies worked on this issue. We built a coalition that included nurses, PTA leaders, environmentalists, restaurant owners, hospital administrators, pediatricians, and many others who persuaded the Assembly to stand up for public health and the environment. And I'm equally proud of my colleagues, who decided to stand up to the pharmaceutical lobby and the poultry companies and do the right thing for the public and the Bay.
Patch: What are the top changes that people should look for once ban in effect?
Hucker: People should be overjoyed that -- for the first year since 1946 -- we won't be adding tons of arsenic to our food, soil, and the Bay. The EPA allows only 10 parts per billion of arsenic in drinking water, yet we've been adding 30,000 pounds of arsenic to our land, water, and food in Maryland annually for decades. It's really astonishing. I think that, years from now, people will look at this issue the way we look at lead and asbestos -- people wonder how we let it be used for so long.
Patch: How are you being of assistance to other states that also are
considering passing a ban on arsenic in chicken?
Hucker: Individual legislators in other states have reached out to us for information on introducing parallel bills in their legislatures. And I'm working with the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators to share our experience and the lessons learned in Maryland with their members across the nation.
Patch: Anything else you would like to add that wasn’t asked?
Hucker: Hopefully, this three-year effort will show people how at least in Maryland, a few individuals working together can make a huge difference. Hopefully, thousands of people will avoid getting cancer or heart disease because of this new law. But this was not a priority of the professional advocates. This issue was brought to my attention by a constituent, it was successfully lobbied by a coalition of scrappy, grassroots groups, and thousands of individuals wrote and called their lawmakers to give them the confidence to stand up to the lobbyists from Pfizer and the agribusiness lobby.
That's inspiring to me, and I hope it encourages many more people to bring issues to our attention and to help us to turn them into laws.