The U.S. Department of Agriculture has ordered Tyson Foods Inc. to stop using a packaging label claiming that its chickens are raised without antibiotics that affect drug resistance in humans, saying the Arkansas company medicates its poultry with gentamicin, which is used to treat bacterial infections in people.
The Food Safety and Inspection Service division within the USDA found that Tyson routinely uses gentamicin to "prevent illness and death in chicks," Richard Raymond, the under secretary for food safety, said in a statement yesterday.
The agency previously approved the claim, believing that Tyson only used antibiotics that aren't administered to humans.
Raymond gave the company until June 18 to remove any claims to the contrary from its packaging, a deadline that Tyson calls "unrealistic." The company had said this week that it would change the labeling voluntarily.
"We respectfully disagree with ... any statements suggesting our products are anything less than safe and wholesome," Tyson spokesman Gary Mickelson said in a statement yesterday. Mickelson said Tyson vaccinates its eggs with a small amount of "antibiotic" as do others within the U.S. broiler industry.
A 2007 Johns Hopkins study found that factory workers who handled poultry treated with gentamicin were 32 times more likely to be colonized by E. coli that was resistant to the drug.
Tyson shares fell $1.47 - 8 percent - yesterday to close at $16.98. The company announced yesterday that a flock of its breeder hens on an Arkansas farm were exposed to a "low-pathogen strain of avian influenza."
"Preliminary tests on the flock indicate the presence of antibodies for H7N3 avian influenza, however, there is no indication the birds currently have the virus," Mickelson said. "The 15,000 chickens involved show no signs of illness, and the situation poses no risk to human health."
Mickelson said the company was notified of the USDA labeling decision via fax late Monday. Executives had announced earlier in the day a voluntary withdrawal of the packaging label because of "uncertainty and controversy over produce labeling and advertising claims." It did not mention gentamicin.
Tyson is being sued in U.S. District Court in Baltimore by Salisbury-based Perdue Farms and Sanderson Farms of Mississippi. The competitors say they're losing millions of dollars to Tyson because of misleading advertising claims. Last month, a federal judge said Tyson could no longer use the antibiotics claim in its marketing, though the decision did not affect the company's labeling.
Perdue attorney Randall K. Miller, a partner with Arnold & Porter LLP in McLean, Va., said the decision was a win for his clients, particularly the June 18 removal date. Tyson had volunteered to remove the labels within six weeks, but that's too long, Miller said.
"It's grilling season, which means people are out barbecuing and cooking up their chicken," Miller said.
Leaving that labeling in supermarkets into the summer is damaging to competitors, Miller said.
The Baltimore case is scheduled to go to a jury trial, where the plaintiffswill ask for the company to return any gains it made from marketing its birds with the antibiotics claim.