Tyson Foods, the world's largest meat processor and the second largest chicken producer in the U.S., has admitted that it injects its chickens with antibiotics before they hatch and then labels them as raised without antibiotics.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has told Tyson to stop using the antibiotic-free label, but the company has sued for the right to keep using it.
Poultry farmers regularly treat chickens and other birds with antibiotics. But scientists have become increasingly concerned that the routine use of antibiotics in animal agriculture may accelerate the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
After Tyson began labeling its chicken antibiotic-free, the USDA warned the company that such labels were not truthful, because Tyson regularly treats its birds' feed with bacteria-killing ionophores. Tyson argued that ionophores are antimicrobials rather than antibiotics, and are not used on human patients. Tyson suggested a compromise which was eventually accepted by the USDA -- they would use a label reading "raised without antibiotics that impact antibiotic resistance in humans."
Tyson's competitors: Perdue Farms Inc., Sanderson Farms Inc. and Foster Farms sued, and in May 2008, a federal judge ruled in their favor and told Tyson to stop using the label. Not long after, USDA inspectors discovered that in addition to using ionophores, Tyson was regularly injecting its chicken eggs with gentamicin, an antibiotic that has been used for more than 30 years.
The agency told Tyson that based on the new discovery, it would no longer consider the antibiotic-free label "truthful and accurate." Tyson objected again, claiming that because the antibiotics are injected before the chickens hatched, the birds can truthfully be said to be "raised without antibiotics." Tyson has filed a lawsuit against the USDA, claiming that the agency had improperly changed the definition of "raised without antibiotics" to include the treatment of eggs.