- Poultry processor Sanderson Farms denied claims made in a federal lawsuit that says synthetic drugs and other chemicals were administered to the company's chickens, according to Meat & Poultry. In the suit, the Organic Consumers Association (OCA), Friends of the Earth (FoE) and Center for Food Safety (CfS) claim that the company misled consumers to believe its chickens are "100% natural" when its poultry actually contains residues of chemicals and synthetic drugs.
- The organizations base their accusations on tests conducted by the National Residue Program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service. Court documents indicate that FSIS tests revealed 49 instances in which samples of the meat company's products tested positive for residues of synthetic drugs, including substances prohibited for use in food animals.
- “While Sanderson Farms generally does not comment on pending litigation, we can unequivocally state that Sanderson Farms does not administer the antibiotics, other chemicals and pesticides, or 'other pharmaceuticals' listed in the complaint with one exception. To say otherwise is irresponsible," the company said in a statement.
Sanderson Farms claims that aside from penicillin prescribed in Food and Drug Administration-approved doses to treat sick birds, it has not administered any of the drugs or chemicals described in the suit. The meat giant also stated that the majority of the substances listed in the complaint aren't approved for use in broilers, and some would be lethal to chickens.
The substances listed by FSIS include ketamine, a drug with hallucinogenic effects that isn't approved for use in poultry; chloramphenical, which is prohibited in all food animals; growth hormones; steroids and anti-inflammatory drugs.
“Sanderson’s advertising claims are egregiously misleading to consumers, and unfair to competitors," Ronnie Cummins, international director at OCA, said in a statement. "The organic and free-range poultry sector would be growing much more rapidly if consumers knew the truth about Sanderson’s products and false advertising.”
These accusations come at an interesting time for Sanderson. While major poultry producers like Tyson Foods, Perdue Farms and Butterball have made strides to eliminate antibiotics in their chicken, Sanderson has refused to bend to the changing sentiments of health-conscious consumers. The company has stated publicly that it's committed to using antibiotics in its poultry products and has even launched campaigns exploring the misconceptions consumers have about antibiotics. Veterinarians who work at the company also claim that the substances are needed to protect the birds' health and produce high-quality products.
"When they (European countries) took antibiotics out of use in their flocks … their birds came to the plant with more salmonella, more E. coli, more campylobacter and more listeria,” Sanderson chairman and CEO Joe F. Sanderson, Jr. told Meat + Poultry in May. “And that's something we've been working to reduce for 25 years. We want less salmonella.”
It will be interesting to see how the ruling in this case plays out. A growing number of consumers look for poultry products with claims like antibiotic-free, cage-free and free-range, and it follows that many could equate Sanderson's "100% natural" claim with a pledge that the product is free of drugs. Both shoppers and industry players are concerned that exposure to antibiotics in food could lead to drug resistance in humans.
For now, it seems unlikely that Sanderson will change its position on antibiotic use in poultry. In response to the suit, the company stated that it would continue its advertising campaign "to educate consumers on [its] position regarding the judicious use of FDA approved medicines to treat sick chickens and prevent disease in [its] flocks." Still, this lawsuit could hurt consumer trust of the company, and drive shoppers to chicken brands that have made antibiotic-free pledges, pulling Sanderson behind its competitors.