Sanderson Farms sued for ‘false advertising’

Company to defend itself against ‘false and irresponsible’ claims.

Sanderson Farms said it will “vigorously defend” itself in a lawsuit filed June 22 in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California by three activist groups — Organic Consumers Assn. (OCA), Friends of the Earth (FoE) and Center for Food Safety (CFS) — that alleges that the third-largest U.S. poultry producer is falsely advertising products as “100% natural” when testing by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety & Inspection Service (FSIS) has shown that they contain a wide range of “unnatural and, in some cases, prohibited substances.” The substances, according to the groups, include antibiotics, steroids, hormones and even a drug with hallucinogenic effects.

The groups claim that while Sanderson chicken is advertised as 100% natural or “nothing but chicken,” recent testing conducted by the FSIS National Residue Program found 49 instances in which samples of Sanderson products tested positive for residues of synthetic drugs that are not natural. Thirty-three percent of the 69 FSIS inspections, conducted in five states, uncovered residues “that no reasonable consumer would consider ‘natural,’ the groups stated.

Test results included:

  • Eleven instances of antibiotics for human use, including chloramphenical, which is prohibited for use in food animals.
  • Positive results for ketamine, a drug with hallucinogenic effects, using testing methods normally applied to beef and pork. Valid testing methods have not been developed for ketamine in poultry, because ketamine is not approved for use in poultry.
  • Ketoprofren, an anti-inflammatory drug.
  • Prednisone, a steroid.
  • Traces of growth two hormones -- melengesterol acetate and a beta agonist ractopamine -- both of which are banned in chicken production.
  • Six instances of residues of amoxicillin, a medically important antibiotic for human use and one that is not approved for use in poultry. (This deserves further investigation because, similar to ketamine, valid testing methods have been developed only for beef.)
  • Three instances of penicillin residue at up to 0.285 parts per billion, while the regulatory residue limit is zero.
  • Positive test results for the insecticides abamectin and Emamectin, using testing methods that apply to pork.

“Consumers should be alarmed that any food they eat contains steroids, recreational or anti-inflammatory drugs or antibiotics prohibited for use in livestock — much less that these foods are falsely advertised and labeled ‘100% natural,’” OCA international director Ronnie Cummins said. “Sanderson’s advertising claims are egregiously misleading to consumers and unfair to competitors. 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.”

Paige Tomaselli, senior attorney at CFS and co-counsel in the case, said, “Sanderson Farms’ claim that there is ‘only chicken in (their) chicken’ is an outright lie. The pharmaceuticals and other contaminants that FSIS found in Sanderson’s chicken present potential human health and food safety risks. Consumers are being deceived in thinking that these products are natural and wholesome.”

Sanderson Farms released a statement saying that it generally does not comment on pending litigation but that the allegations in the lawsuit bear upon food quality and safety.

Sanderson said it does not administer the antibiotics, other chemicals and pesticides or "other pharmaceuticals" listed in the complaint to its flocks, with one exception.

“To suggest otherwise is false and irresponsible,” the company continued. “Company veterinarians do, on rare occasions, prescribe penicillin to treat sick poultry flocks when, in their professional judgment, they consider it necessary for animal welfare. Such medicines are given in accordance with Food & Drug Administration guidance, including a withdrawal period between the time the medicine is administered and when the flock is harvested. Most all of the other drugs and chemicals cited in the complaint are not approved for use in chickens, and some would be lethal to chickens.”

Sanderson added that, in its 70-year history, it has never been cited by USDA or any other regulatory body for violation of any residue law, rule or regulation.

“Sanderson Farms will vigorously defend this lawsuit. The company also intends to continue its marketing and advertising campaign to educate consumers on its position regarding the judicious use of FDA-approved medicines to treat sick chickens and to prevent disease in chicken flocks. Such use is consistent with Sanderson Farms' animal welfare obligations to the animals under its care, its environmental sustainability efforts and the company's obligations regarding food safety.”

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