Oversight-free chickens

Last fall the animal slaughter giant Tyson Foods, Inc. was selling chickens with a USDA approved label, "raised without antibiotics." Some people thought that was a bit misleading insofar as Tyson routinely used ionophores in their feed designed to prevent a fungal disease in the birds. The USDA classes ionophores as antibiotics. The agency had "overlooked" the additive and when it was forcefully brought to their attention, they asked Tyson to add words to their label indicating it used no antibiotics that could cause antibiotic resistance in humans. Tyson added the words in December but never admitted to being at any impropriety:

"We stand by the truthfulness of our product labels and remain fully committed to our Raised Without Antibiotics chicken program. We also expect no disruption in service to our customers." (Tyson statement via Natural Foods for You)

That was good enough for the USDA. Except even the new label was a lie, and Tyson's competitors caught them at it, forcing the USDA to cancel approval of even the amended label:

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 Tuesday.

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. (AP via Manufacturing.net)

The USDA has now sent Tyson a letter stating that the label's claim that the chickens were "raised without antibiotics" could no longer be considered "truthful and accurate." Ya think?

The USDA undersecretary for food safety had originally said more, adding that the use of gentamicin produced a public health concern, presumably on the basis of the potential to promote antibiotic resistance. That went too far for Tyson, who complained to someone higher up:

The USDA issued a statement Tuesday rescinding an earlier comment from [the USDA undersecretary] that use of gentamicin raised a public health concern. Tyson Foods Vice President Archie Schaffer said Wednesday 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. (AP via Manufacturing.net

What does this mean, exactly? That gentamicin is not a public health concern because all the other companies add it, too? I guess that makes sense, in a Bush administration kind of way. Better retract the USDA statement. Tyson's new defense also relies on some pretty delicate word parsing. They use gentamicin on the eggs, before the chicken is born, thus. they claim, not used during the "raising" of the chicken. Tyson defines "raising" as starting with the second day of life. I guess when it comes to agribusiness giants, life doesn't start at conception.

Tyson announced it is "voluntarily" withdrawing the label. Which is more than the USDA did, apparently, its hand having been forced by Tyson's competitors organized into the Orwellian-named Truthful Labeling Coalition (including Perdue Farms Inc., Sanderson Farms Inc. and Livingston, California-based Foster Farms). Perdue and Sanderson had sued over a label they considered "clearly false and misleading," and a federal judge agreed, ordering Tyson to stop them from running any advertisements with the claim last month. Now, belatedly, the USDA is acting.

Maybe Tyson's new label should read, "Chicken raised without serious USDA oversight." That, at least, would be truthful and not misleading.

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Good reporting. When the Bush administration refers to public health, what they actually mean is the economic health of publicly traded corporations.

A number of non-antibiotic microbicides can cause selection for antibiotic resistant strains. Here is an example of pine oil.


I have recently blogged about antibiotic resistance and how a better target for suppressing virulence is likely to be quorum sensing rather than outright killing. Organisms (for the most part) only cause an infection when they are in the phenotype that expresses virulence factors. Those virulence factors are regulated by quorum sensing which only turns them on when the concentration of the organism is high enough. Blocking quorum sensing is a biological control strategy that most eukaryotes practice. There isn't as much evolutionary pressure to evolve a different quorums sensing pathway as there is to survive toxins.


When individuals are colonized with organisms resistant to antibiotics, what that means is that the resistant organisms are not at a high enough concentration to trigger quorum sensing which would trigger expression of virulence factors and infection. Much of what is keeping those resistant organisms in check is the competition from other non-pathogenic commensal organisms. When those commensal organisms are knocked out by antibiotics, it leaves the niche open for the resistant organisms to multiply, express quorum sensing compounds and become virulent. That is why infections following a course of antibiotics are so common. The antibiotics wipe out the commensals that have been suppressing the other things.

You are right Revere. Tyson has been changing their coats with the people who go into the White House. Laura Tyson was in the PR end of it, only to go when it was clear that GWB would take the WH... Daddy immediately sucked up.

The area around Springdale AR is their stomping grounds, having picked up Federal Compress along the way in the 80's. The history for them is spotty at best.




And would you believe the lawsuit was thrown out because Tennessee didnt have a law covering hiring illegal aliens with fake social security numbers? Thats in the works.

Add in the above and its all about "what is, is." It is a company that will do just about anything to make a buck. Back a WJC to get supply contracts to the military and government, UN. Bail on him, he has had his run. Then to back GWB whose FDA and USDA aint had such a good history lately. But then again, someone at least had the gonads to stand up to them on this one. BTW I believe they are supporting Obama in this one.

By M. Randolph Kruger (not verified) on 09 Jun 2008 #permalink

I think the big news here is that the USDA did SOMETHING.

You know they will eventually GM the chickens to produce their own antibiotics. Of course, they won't tell us they grow GM Chickens or use GM feed. If the chickens produce their own antibiotics, they can use the following label.

"Chickens not given any antibiotics! "

Big Pharma won't be happy losing that business though. Perhaps they can sue the GM chickens for infringing on their intellectual property rights. More likely the food and drug industry will integrate into one big food and drug corporation.