Inspectors from the U.S. Department of Agriculture routinely found Tyson Foods Inc. gave chickens advertised as “raised without antibiotics” an antibiotic that can be used in humans, on top of another the company said it gave, the agency said.
A statement from Richard Raymond, an undersecretary for food safety at the USDA, said the world’s largest meat producer had used gentamicin on its poultry. Gentamicin has been used for more than 30 years in the United States to treat a variety of infections in humans. The federal government also stores the antibiotic as a treatment for plague and other biological agents.
Springdale-based Tyson, in responding to a federal lawsuit over it labeling its poultry as “raised without antibiotics,” already said it used ionophores in its chicken feed. Though widely considered as an antibiotic, ionophores are not used to treat illnesses in humans and thus are not believed to raise human health concerns.
Amanda Eamich, a USDA spokeswoman, said the agency also sent a letter to Tyson, warning that it could not consider its no-antibiotics label as “truthful and accurate.”
“The use of this particular antibiotic was not disclosed to us,” Eamich said.
The USDA issued a statement rescinding an earlier comment from Raymond that use of gentamicin raised a public health concern. Tyson Foods Vice President Archie Schaffer said that Raymond spoke in error and changed his statement after being contacted by the company. Schaffer said “the vast majority of the industry does exactly the same thing” as Tyson.
Tyson spokesman Gary Mickelson said the company used gentamicin during egg vaccinations, before the birth of a chicken. Mickelson described the vaccinations as a standard practice, as rules on labels describing how birds are “raised” typically start from the second day of life.
“While we agree with the agency that a public process is needed to sort out the many nuances of label claims describing on-farm practices, we respectfully disagree with the limited timeframe we’ve been given to change our label and with any statements suggesting our products are anything less than safe and wholesome,” Mickelson said in a statement.
Charles Hansen of the Truthful Labeling Coalition, whose members are Perdue Farms Inc., Sanderson Farms Inc. and Livingston, Calif.-based Foster Farms, had asked the USDA to rescind its approval for Tyson’s labeling. Hansen said that eggs typically receive the gentamicin the day before the birds hatch and that the antibiotic takes several weeks to dissipate from their systems.
“The labels were clearly false and misleading,” Hansen said.
Tyson announced it would “voluntarily withdraw” labels claiming that its poultry products didn’t contain antibiotics, after a federal court issued an injunction stopping the company from making the claim in its advertising. The company also said it would ask the USDA to start “a public process to bring more clarity and consistency to labeling and advertising rules” on antibiotic claims.
Tyson said the USDA approved their slogan, but overlooked its use of ionophores, rather than gentamicin. Raymond’s statement said the USDA had ordered Tyson to stop using the “raised without antibiotics” labels by June 18, something Mickelson called “unrealistic.”
U.S. District Judge Richard Bennett in Baltimore had set a May 15 deadline to stop Tyson from running any of the advertisements, including in-store posters and brochures. The injunction came after competitors Perdue and Sanderson sued, claiming Tyson’s advertising was misleading.
Sanderson, based in Laurel, Miss., has argued it lost a $4 million account to Tyson because of the advertising campaign, and Salisbury, Md.-based Perdue claims it has lost about $10 million in revenue since last year.
Tyson, the nation’s second-largest chicken producer after Pilgrim’s Pride Corp., said at the time that fresh chicken made up less than 10 percent of the company’s sales, which also include pork and beef.
Stock in Tyson fell by 8 percent in trading down $1.47 to $16.98 per share.
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