Could There Be Party Pills in Your Chicken?

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July 04, 2017 | 40,513 views

Story at-a-glance

  • Consumer groups filed suit against Sanderson Farms after the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) scrutinized 69 locations and found 82 “unconfirmed residues”
  • FSIS inspections and testing discovered the recreational drug ketamine, a hallucinogenic anesthetic, as well as antibiotics, pesticides and growth hormones in Sanderson Farm products
  • Several consumer groups filed the complaint against the $2.8 billion company for touting its products as “100 percent natural,” asking Sanderson to admit it violated false advertising laws and to pay for a corrective ad campaign

By Dr. Mercola

If you've never heard about ketamine, you're not alone. Scores of people had never heard the word until Bloomberg broke the story June 22, 2017, revealing that ketamine had shown up in Sanderson Farms' so-called "100 percent natural" chicken, arguably the most popular meat in America.

Some who've heard of ketamine may include veterinarians, psychiatrists and people in the club scene who like to walk on the edgy (read: sketchy) side, as ketamine is known for delivering hallucinogenic effects. Testing also revealed other, and some even worse substances, and consumer advocacy groups don't intend to sit still for it. In fact, a new lawsuit has been initiated by consumer advocacy groups due to the company's use of the word "natural" in its advertising. Bloomberg explains:

"The consumer groups contend that Sanderson Farms 'doses its chickens' but don't explain why. Ketamine might be used to sedate the animals during transport or before slaughter. The consumer groups want Sanderson to concede it violated false advertising laws and pay for a corrective ad campaign."1

Some consumers may feel it's not a big deal, what with all the other questionable ingredients in foods nowadays, but that's where they'd be wrong. As Drug.com explains, ketamine (pronounced kee'-ta-meen) is an anesthesia that "works in the brain to inhibit painful sensations."2 It's prescribed by psychiatrists for depressed patients and by dentists as an anesthetic. A partial list of disturbing side effects include:

Is it too much to ask, when a company touts its food as natural, for consumers to expect it to be true?

Sanderson Farms' Chicken Has a Wide Distributorship

"Natural" is a term used very loosely in terms of foods available for sale. The tests conducted by the National Residue Program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) scrutinizes thousands of meat and poultry product samples every year for this very reason.

Using the Freedom of Information Act, several entities, including Friends of the Earth (FoE), the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) and the Center for Food Safety (CFS), obtained FSIS test results and subsequently filed a complaint in federal court June 22, 2017. FoE notes that Sanderson Farms reported 2016 sales of $2.816 billion, and that the company sells chicken:

"Under its own brand name and private labels, through retail stores such as Shaw's, Albertsons, Food 4 Less, Foods Co, WinCo Foods and others. Sanderson chicken is also distributed to institutions, and is sold to casual dining outlets, such as Arby's, Darden Restaurants (which owns Olive Garden, Longhorn Steakhouse, Yardhouse, Capitol Grill and others), Dairy Queen and Chili's.3

Conducting inspections at 69 Sanderson Farms locations in North Carolina, Louisiana, Texas, Georgia and Mississippi between November 2015 and November 2016, FSIS tested products and found questionable residue during 33 percent of their visits; 49 times, samples returned residues deemed something other than '100 percent natural.' For its part, the company maintains:

"While Sanderson Farms generally does not comment on pending litigation, we can unequivocally state that Sanderson Farms does not administer the antibiotics, other chemicals and pesticides, or 'other pharmaceuticals' listed in the complaint with one exception. To suggest otherwise is irresponsible.

Our veterinarians do from time to time prescribe penicillin in FDA approved doses to treat sick flocks, and our withdrawal times far exceed FDA guidelines out of an abundance of caution. Most all of the drugs and chemicals cited in the complaint are not approved for use in broilers, and some would be lethal to chickens."

While many of the biggest chicken producers are actively taking steps to reduce antibiotic use in their operations, Sanderson doesn't think it's necessary. Sanderson Farms' president and CEO Lampkin Butts says no credible science leads the company to believe they're causing antibiotic resistance in humans, and that raising chickens without antibiotics would lead to higher mortality rates.

They'd also need to build more barns for more room between birds, and more corn, water, soybean meal and electricity, when "sustainability is all about using less of everything."4

Hallucinogen Just One of Many Potentially Toxic Substances Found

According to Bloomberg, the ketamine detection exceeded the USDA's maximum of 20 parts per billion (ppb), so officials used testing methods typically used for beef and pork; since ketamine is not an approved substance for use in poultry, valid testing methods haven't been developed. However, further testing may be done with a method devised specifically for poultry.

Ketamine wasn't the only problematic substance found in Sanderson Farms' chicken. Besides 82 instances of "unconfirmed residues," including pesticides, plaintiffs claim other troubling materials found at the plants were identified, according to Bloomberg and Meat and Poultry:

Semantics: What 'All Natural' Denotes

Perhaps one reason groups representing consumers are incensed enough to sue Sanderson Farms is because the company hawks its wares, as it were, in advertising pieces calling attention not so due to their chicken's great taste, but how natural it is.

Folksy, flannel shirt-wearing spokesmen face the camera and chat in a 2016 commercial about how disingenuous it is for other chicken producers to "trick" customers into paying more money by labeling their products "raised without antibiotics," when in fact, the second fellow drawls, "by federal law, all chickens must be clear of antibiotics before they leave the farm." The takeaway? "Don't fall for the hype."

Another Sanderson Farms "good, honest chicken" commercial from 2017 (see above) throws in canned laughter when the guys discuss how "fancy marketing" labels that say "no added hormones or steroids" mislead people. "It's funny because it's illegal to give chickens added hormones and steroids," one guy says.

Ironically, one of the substances found in the company's chicken was the synthetic hormone melengestrol acetate. Meanwhile, the whole idea of natural denotes safe and free from drugs and pesticide residues. Bloomberg notes:

"FSIS can take enforcement action including levying fines or closing facilities. Multiple violations land a company on the Residue Repeat Violator List. Many of these products use the word natural as part of their labeling and advertising."5

OCA's international director, Ronnie Cummins, stated:

"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.'

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."6

The Fine Print for Chicken Producers, Government Entities and Consumers

According to Bloomberg, antibiotic use in agriculture is under heavy fire from public health activists because of its alleged link to "growing antibiotic resistance," but adds that "Sanderson stands by the practice."7

While the USDA declined comment (as it's the USDA, not the FDA, that regulates poultry) regarding whether any forthcoming action against Sanderson Farms can be expected from FSIS' findings, the company itself emphatically stated its intention to fight the lawsuit and, meanwhile, to continue its ad campaigns. Meat and Poultry reported part of the company's response:

"We will vigorously defend this lawsuit, and will take specific steps to make sure our position is clear. We will also continue our advertising campaign to educate consumers on our position regarding the judicious use of FDA-approved medicines to treat sick chickens and to prevent disease in our flocks. Such use is consistent with our animal welfare obligations to the animals under our care, our environmental sustainability efforts and our obligations regarding food safety."8

Proving that the consumers who filed suit were actually fooled by advertising and false labels is going to be an uphill battle, according to food law litigators. They maintain there needs to be evidence that consumers bought the products because they thought it was free of the chemicals mentioned in the commercials, and that they wouldn't have purchased it if they'd known.

But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has shown concern regarding antibiotics' use in animal husbandry, saying it's contributing to the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Its 2013 report links two of 18 antibiotic-resistant bacterium to the use of antibiotics in animals.9

Concern regarding antibiotic-resistant bacteria on meat and poultry is because it can cause disease, says CDC director of the division of foodborne, waterborne and environmental diseases, Dr. Robert Tauxe, as animal research worldwide shows that when antibiotics are used in animals that produce food, it has a negative impact on public health; it can make people very sick. FoE's deputy director of food and technology Kari Hamerschlag says:

"Drugs in our chicken is anything but natural. This scandal is a wake-up call to all the consumers who want healthier meat. The widespread presence of drugs in Sanderson Farms chicken reflects the excessive use of antibiotics and other chemicals used to keep animals alive in the filthy, inhumane, factory-farm conditions in which the birds are raised."10

Why Do Companies Insist on Putting Such Additives in Their Products?

Tyson Foods Inc., by far the leading poultry company in the U.S., top producer Perdue Farms Inc.,11 and Butterball LLC have all initiated processes to raise chickens without antibiotics, and they make no "no antibiotics ever" promises. However, more than 50 percent of Perdue's flocks receive no antibiotics at all, and Tyson has pledged that by September 2017, it will largely eliminate antibiotics used to treat humans from its chicken operations, The New York Times notes.12

Sanderson Farms isn't the only company to use the word "natural" as part of its shtick. General Mills Inc. was called out by the same group of attorneys (Richman Law Group) when glyphosate showed up in what was purported to be 100 percent natural granola bars.

Hormel Foods Corp. is also under legal scrutiny as its line of deli meats, Natural Choice, is made with not-natural ingredients, including pork from pigs raised using both synthetic growth promoters and antibiotics. Both cases are still pending and both continue to deny doing anything wrong.

It's no secret that many Americans are waking up to the fact that simply going to the store, buying groceries and eating them, isn't working well at all because of all the hair-raising toxins and other unsavory elements so-called foods are laced with. As there's an absence of a specifically worded definition of what constitutes "natural," especially in light of a slew of lawsuits alleging gross misrepresentation in advertising, in 2015 the USDA asked the public for its collective opinion.

Nearly 7,000 people responded, and that's a good thing — it's hard to say what the USDA would have done had it been only 10 or 12. But it stood by its policy that natural in regard to food means "nothing artificial or synthetic" or containing substances, including added color, "that would not normally be expected to be in that food."13 Still, the regulations are so vague, Bloomberg suggests that even chicken nuggets would fly under USDA definitions:

"Unlike foods regulated by the FDA, those under USDA rules need approval for label claims such as "100 percent natural," so lawsuits that tried to challenge such claims would likely be met with successful preemption arguments, citing that pre-market blessing from USDA."

While many people find it cumbersome to be so vigilant over the foods they bring home for, it's never been more important to do so.

[+]Sources and References [-]Sources and References

  • 1, 5, 7 Bloomberg June 22, 2017
  • 2 Drugs.com Ketamine 2000-2017
  • 3, 10 FoE June 22, 2017
  • 4, 12 New York Times August 2, 2016
  • 6, 8 Meat and Poultry June 23, 2017
  • 9 CDC Antibiotic Resistance Threats in the United States, 2013 April 10, 2017
  • 11 Watt Ag Net 2017
  • 13 FDA USDA "Natural" on Food Labeling September 14, 2016