The consumer advocacy group Food & Water Watch announced today that it sued the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), claiming the organization unlawfully ignored a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for records.

The FOIA request, submitted last year, concerns the agency's position on whether arsenicals, arsenic-based drugs added to poultry feed, pose a health risk. Other than to acknowledge its receipt, the FDA has not responded to the FOIA request, according to Food & Water Watch.

The lawsuit seeks to obtain correspondences between the FDA and the drug company Pfizer, which produces the arsenicals in question.

Beginning in 1944, the FDA has approved over 100 products with arsenicals for use in chicken, turkeys, and pigs. Arsenicals promote weight gain, lead to pinker meat, and have other effects.

Arsenical use in chicken feed has become standard industrial practice. Industry estimates put arsenical use in chickens at 88 percent.

In 2011, FDA scientists found that feeding the arsenical roxarsone to chickens increased the concentration of inorganic arsenic in chicken livers. Chickens began eating feed with roxarsone in 2010.

In response, the FDA announced that roxarsone posed no health risk. Nonetheless, it recommended the drug's withdrawal, and Pfizer voluntarily removed it from the U.S. market.

A study performed by Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (CLF), published May 11, 2013, in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Health Perspectives, found that inorganic arsenic concentrations in chicken breast meat were three times higher than those in USDA organic chickens, which by law may not receive arsenicals.

The chicken meat used in the study was purchased between December 2010 and June 2011, before roxarsone sales were suspended.

"This study strongly suggests that using arsenicals in chickens increases the levels of a carcinogen found in chicken meat," said Keeve Nachman, director of CLF's Farming for the Future program and the lead author of the recent arsenical study. "These findings highlight the need to know how the FDA is regulating these drugs, and why the agency has refused to withdraw arsenical approvals."

The agency has not required the withdrawal of arsenicals, even though the recent research has suggested they may be dangerous to public health. Because the removal of feed products containing arsenicals, including roxarsone and three other arsenicals, was voluntary, Pfizer could reintroduce the arsenicals to U.S. markets at any time.

"It is simply outrageous that the FDA has concealed information about these drugs from the public," said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch. "We want to know more about why the agency has failed to withdraw arsenical approvals despite evidence of their danger."

Initially, the FDA claimed that arsenicals posed no health risks. This seemed suspicious to Nachman. Why would Pfizer agree to remove its lucrative product from U.S. markets if arsenicals posed no health problems?

Nachman asked the FDA about this incongruity later on a public conference call organized by the agency.

"I noted in your press release [that] you stated that consuming chicken [as roxarsone is suspended] from the market doesn't pose a health risk, and based on that, I was curious as to the rationale for suspending the drug," said Nachman.

An FDA official responded that the study showed "increased levels of inorganic arsenic in treated chickens compared to the control chickens," but "the levels are very low and present a very low risk." The official explained that because the levels were so low, "[They] do not believe that poses a concern in terms of continuing to eat chicken while the suspension is implemented."

The CLF asked the FDA if the organization had quantified the risk presented by arsenicals, and the agency responded that it had not.

Following this exchange, the FOIA request was sent in August 2012.

"We want to know what the FDA and Pfizer were telling each other privately to see if it matches what the agency told consumers," Hauter said. "It is hard to imagine how the FDA persuaded Pfizer to suspend sale of such a lucrative product if the agency did not believe there could be a significant risk."

The FDA has 30 days to respond to the complaint.

"How the FDA regulates arsenicals has important ramifications for public health," wrote Tyler Smith, Senior Research & Policy Associate at CLF's Farming for the Future Center. "Why has this public health agency refused to withdraw arsenical approvals now that the public health risk is clear?"