Chicken drug still used despite risk of cancer

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A TOXIC chemical known to cause cancer and banned in several other countries is being used by British farmers to treat poultry.

The Government has been aware of the chemical's dangers for several years but has only recently issued warnings about its safety and has refused to ban it. At least one of Britain's largest poultry farmers, which supplies many leading supermarkets, is still using it.

Furazolidone is a veterinary medicine which is used in intensive livestock farming to suppress bacteria such as salmonella. It has been widely used in the poultry industry for more than 20 years.

In August 1991, the US Food and Drug Administration banned it from use on animals which would form part of the human food chain. This was followed by prohibitions in Canada, Australia and Germany.

Conclusive proof of the drug's link to cancer emerged at the start of the decade. In 1992, after the first studies had been published, a joint UN/World Health Organisation committee said it could not set a safe level for residues of the drug in animals.

It found low levels in chicken flesh and eggs several days after the drug was administered, raising the possibility that it could make its way into the human food chain. The committee concluded that Furazolidone was a carcinogen.

In September 1993, more than a year later, the Veterinary Medicines Directorate, an agency of the Ministry of Agriculture, issued a letter to all manufacturers of the drug in Britain. The Independent on Sunday has a copy of this. It revealed the results of the WHO tests and also said that until the European Union made a united decision, no action would be taken in Britain. The EU is expected to rule in July 1995.

Some EU countries, such as Germany, have already taken action; others do not use Furazolidone anyway. According to trade sources, the Government here has since lobbied against a ban. Britain is one of the world's biggest producers of the drug.

The Veterinary Medicines Directorate admitted that it had been aware of the possible dangers for more than 10 years. 'We did have our suspicions, but it is not fair to say we could have acted earlier. We were waiting for the WHO report,' said a spokesman.

Its letter also called for drug producers to include the words 'toxic' and 'may cause cancer' on labels. But Grampian Pharmaceuticals, one of the largest manufacturers of the drug, said last week that it had only just started putting risk warnings on labels. 'We are obviously aware of the evidence and have notified all customers,' a spokesman said. He also challenged the link to cancer and the suggestion that Furazolidone could end up in the human food chain.

The dangers of Furazolidone to farm workers in its dust form were considered so great that the Ministry of Agriculture banned its manufacture. It can still be purchased in non-powder forms.

Bernard Matthews, a food producer, said last week that it had stopped using the medicine last March. 'We were given advice that it was potentially hazardous to mill employees,' said a spokesman. Another producer said: 'It could end up like asbestos.'

But others, such as Grampian Country Foods, which processes 1.2 million birds a week, are still using the drug. The company, which is not connected to Grampian Pharmaceuticals, supplies all the UK's major retailers with live birds and is the largest supplier of frozen stock.

A company source accused the US and Ministry of Agriculture of over-reacting. 'I do not believe there is any risk of it entering the food chain or affecting workers, if properly handled.' A poultry vet suggested that if the drug were withdrawn, salmonella epidemics would become more likely.