(NaturalNews) Tyson Foods, the world's largest meat processor and the second largest chicken producer in the United States, has admitted that it injects its chickens with antibiotics before they hatch, but labels them as raised without antibiotics anyway. In response, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) told Tyson to stop using the antibiotic-free label. The company has sued over its right to keep using it.
The controversy over Tyson's antibiotic-free label began in summer 2007, when the company began a massive advertising campaign to tout its chicken as "raised without antibiotics." Already, Tyson has spent tens of millions of dollars this year to date in continuing this campaign.
Poultry farmers regularly treat chickens and other birds with antibiotics to prevent the development of intestinal infections that might reduce the weight (and profitability) of the birds. Yet scientists have become increasingly concerned that the routine use of antibiotics in animal agriculture may accelerate the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that could lead to a pandemic or other health crisis.
After Tyson began labeling its chicken antibiotic-free, the USDA warned the company that such labels were not truthful, because Tyson regularly treats its birds' feed with bacteria-killing ionophores. Tyson argued that ionophores are antimicrobials rather than antibiotics, but the USDA reiterated its policy that "ionophores are antibiotics."
Because ionophores are not used to treat human disease, however, the poultry company suggested a compromise, accepted by the USDA in December, whereby Tyson would use a label reading "raised without antibiotics that impact antibiotic resistance in humans."
Tyson's competitors Perdue Farms Inc., Sanderson Farms Inc. and Foster Farms sued, under the banner of the Truthful Labeling Coalition. In May 2008, a federal judge ruled in their favor and told Tyson to stop using the label.
Not long after, on June 3, USDA inspectors discovered that in addition to using ionophores, Tyson was regularly injecting its chicken eggs with gentamicin, an antibiotic that has been used for more than 30 years in the United States to treat urinary tract and blood infections. The drug is also stockpiled by the federal government as a treatment for biological agents such as plague.
"In contrast to information presented by Tyson Foods Inc., [inspectors] found that they routinely used the antibiotic gentamicin to prevent illness and death in chicks, which raises public health concerns," said USDA Undersecretary for Food Safety Richard Raymond.
"The use of this particular antibiotic was not disclosed to us," said USDA spokesperson Amanda Eamich.
The agency told Tyson that based on the new discovery, it would no longer consider the antibiotic-free label "truthful and accurate." It gave the company 15 days to remove the label from all its products, although that deadline was eventually extended to July 9.
But Tyson objected again, claiming that because the antibiotics are injected two to three days before the chickens hatched, the birds can truthfully be said to be "raised without antibiotics." USDA rules on how to label the raising of birds do not address anything that happens before the second day of life, the company said.
Tyson also defended the "in ovo" injection of antibiotics as standard industry practice.
"The vast majority of the industry does exactly the same thing," Tyson Vice President Archie Schaffer said.
But Hansen noted that it takes gentamicin several weeks to dissipate, so the drugs are still in the birds' bodies after they hatch.
"The labels were clearly false and misleading," he said.
Tyson agreed to voluntarily withdraw its "raised without antibiotics labels," citing "uncertainty and controversy over product labeling regulations." It then filed a lawsuit against the USDA, claiming that the agency had improperly changed the definition of "raised without antibiotics" to include the treatment of eggs.
Tyson is asking to have the regulation to be thrown out.