Sanderson Farms Refuses to Reduce Use of Antibiotics

Story at-a-glance -

  • Antibiotic-resistant disease is a serious public health threat, and the routine use of antibiotics in food animals such as cows and chickens plays a major role in the development of drug-resistant bacteria
  • Many poultry producers have taken steps to reduce antibiotic use; Sanderson Farms, the third-largest poultry producer in the U.S., created an advertising campaign defending its continued use of antibiotics instead
  • According to Sanderson, there’s no proof antibiotic use in poultry is causing antibiotic resistance in humans. Its ads write off the antibiotic-free chicken trend as a marketing ploy to rip off customers

By Dr. Mercola

Antibiotic-resistant disease has become a serious public health threat, and the evidence shows the routine use of antibiotics in food animals such as cows and chickens plays a major role in the development and spread of these drug-resistant bacteria.1

The weight of the evidence is such that no one in their right mind would publicly argue that antibiotics in agriculture are of no consequence. Yet that's exactly what Sanderson Farms is doing.

Sanderson, the third-largest poultry producer in the U.S., has even created an advertising campaign defending its continued use of antibiotics.2,3

I predict the company will ultimately pay a steep price for its foolish and reckless behavior, but in the meantime it is perpetuating a practice that is putting your health and those that you love and care for at risk.

Sanderson Farms does not see the obvious irony of their "100% Natural" marketing claim that is plastered on their packages, websites and commercials. If "antibiotic-free" chicken is a marketing gimmick, "100% Natural" chicken raised by Sanderson Farms is about the biggest chicken fraud of all time.

Perdue Farms' Success Proves Antibiotics Are Unnecessary

A number of poultry producers have already taken steps to cut down or eliminate antibiotics from their production. Tyson, Pilgrim's Pride and Foster Farms have all announced they're implementing procedures to reduce their use.

Tyson has vowed to "largely eliminate" antibiotics used in human medicine by September 2017.4 Meanwhile, Perdue Farms — the nation's fourth largest poultry producer — started cutting back on antibiotics in 2002. It stopped using gentamicin altogether in 2014.

According to a recent report by Mother Jones,5 the only antibiotic remaining in use at Perdue is narasin, which is used to treat a parasitic intestinal condition called coccidiosis. This antibiotic is not used in human medicine, and only about one-third of Perdue's chickens ever receive it.

Perdue clearly shows that meat can be profitably mass-produced without the use of antibiotics. The company also demonstrates that eliminating antibiotics can make the meat safer.

Perdue received the highest safety score in a 2010 Consumer Reports test6 that checked for the presence of the foodborne pathogens salmonella and campylobacter in commercial chicken meat. Fifty-six percent of Perdue's chickens were free of both pathogens.

Meanwhile, 80 percent of Tyson and Foster Farms' chickens tested positive for one or both bacteria. Organic store brand chickens had no salmonella at all, but 57 percent still harbored campylobacter.

According to Consumer Reports, "This is the first time since we began testing chicken that one major brand has fared significantly better than others across the board." Even back then, Perdue's exemplary success was attributed to its more stringent policies on antibiotics.

Sanderson Farms Bucks Trend to Cut Down on Antibiotics

Back in May, I urged you to pressure Sanderson Farms to come to its senses and join other major poultry producers in taking proactive steps to reduce its antibiotic use.

Remarkably, the company decided to go public with its decision to continue using antibiotics instead, saying the antibiotic-free chicken trend is nothing but a marketing ploy devised to justify higher prices! As reported by The New York Times:7

"'There's a lot of confusion about the labels used to market chicken,' said Mike Cockrell, chief financial officer at Sanderson. 'We have decided we're not going to sacrifice our environmental goals, our animal welfare goals or our food safety goals for marketing purposes.'

The ads feature two blue-collar men, Bob and Dale, in plaid shirts and baseball caps talking about the labels on chicken. 'The ones that say 'raised without antibiotics,'' Dale says in one of the ads, 'That's just a trick to get you to pay more money.'"

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Sanderson Denies Link Between Overuse of Antibiotics and Rising Drug-Resistance

According to Lampkin Butts, president and chief operating officer of Sanderson Farms, "There is not any credible science that leads us to believe we're causing antibiotic resistance in humans."8

This stance is not only ignorant. It's dangerous and flies in the face of dozens of studies. If you cause antibiotic resistance to develop in the animals, you're inevitably causing it in humans. Literally millions of lives are at stake if we do not address the elephant in the room that is agricultural antibiotics. As noted in the featured article:9

"[S]cientific research from around the world had demonstrated that antibiotic use in animals that produce food has a negative impact on public health.

"'There have been a number of well-documented epidemics where animals given antibiotics were carrying disease-causing bacteria that were resistant to those antibiotics that made people very sick,' [Dr. Robert Tauxe, director of the division of food-borne, waterborne and environmental diseases at the CDC] said."

Sanderson Confuses and Mixes Up Concerns

Sanderson also claims that no commercially sold chicken, whether treated with antibiotics or not, will contain antibiotics by the time you buy it since the antibiotics must be stopped in time before slaughter in order to ensure the drugs are no longer in the animals' system.

However, this really does NOT address the actual concerns about antibiotic use in chickens. As noted by Tauxe:

"When animals are given antibiotics, they have to be stopped within enough time for the antibiotics to wash out of their systems before slaughter. Our concern remains, however, the bacteria on the meat and poultry that are resistant to the antibiotics the animals were given."

Precisely. So who's confusing the public now? I would argue that Sanderson, in a foolhardy effort to protect an antiquated and hazardous practice, is confusing the public with "facts" that have nothing to do with the issue at hand, but are designed to increase their profits at the expense of public health.

When animals are given antibiotics, it promotes drug resistance in the microbes found in and on the animal, and those drug-resistant bacteria can then be spread to those who handle or eat the tainted meat.

This is true whether the chicken contains traces of antibiotics or not. So while eating trace amounts of antibiotics is a concern,10 it's not the most significant one.

Putting a Price Tag on Public Health

Paying a few pennies more per pound of chicken is a small price to pay for an antibiotic-free bird, and I'm certainly not the only person who feels this way. The fact that Perdue has been growing faster than any of its competitors is evidence of this sentiment. Perdue also proves that Sanderson is wrong in its assessment of the ramifications of going antibiotic-free. As reported by The New York Times:

"'We looked at it, and we would need more corn, more water, more soybean meal, more housing, more electricity,' [Butts] said. 'But sustainability calls for using less of everything.' In interviews this year, however, Perdue said that its move to all but eliminate antibiotics from its operations — it still medicates sick flocks — had not raised its costs nor increased the mortality rate of its chickens."

Interestingly, Sanderson claims they don't use antibiotics for growth promotion, yet they've determined that more food would be required if they didn't use antibiotics. That sure sounds like the antibiotics they use are expected to contribute to growth, doesn't it?

Sanderson Aims to Convince Ignorant Consumers With Its Ads

According to Butts, Sanderson Farms' work with focus groups reveals that consumers are confused about the exact meaning of different antibiotic-free labels. He also claims that after hearing Sanderson's justification for using antibiotics, most people in the focus groups agreed that it made sense to them.

Butts also noted that while about 20 percent of people had already made up their minds about whether or not they were willing to buy antibiotic-treated chicken, another 20 percent based their decision purely on price. The remaining 60 percent Butts refers to as "the movable middle" — people willing to listen to facts and reason — and these are the people Sanderson is trying to sway with their ads.

Too bad their ads are filled with deceptive lies contributing to the needless deaths of tens of thousands every year in the U.S. alone. If Sanderson really wants to help educate the public about antibiotics, it should track and publicly share the types and amounts of antibiotics it uses. Data like that could be very useful for scientists trying to understand the impact of agricultural drugs on public health, for better or worse.

Sanderson Blames Drug Resistance on Medical Institutions

Considering the fact that 80 percent of the antibiotics used in the U.S. are used in agriculture, and the amount of evidence showing agricultural use of antibiotics is driving the drug resistance epidemic, I can only wonder where Sanderson is getting its information. In a press release, the company says:11

"While Sanderson Farms recognizes that antibiotic resistance is an issue that must be taken seriously, many industry experts agree the issue is related to the overuse and over-prescription of antibiotics in humans, and more closely linked to medical institutions such as hospitals and nursing homes, rather than agricultural processes that have been in place for decades."

Who are these industry experts, exactly? Because, for many years now, scientists have repeatedly warned that agricultural use of antibiotics is a bad idea that must be curbed. The industry didn't listen, and today we have a very serious situation on our hands — a situation Sanderson apparently wants to drag out to the bitter end, no matter what the cost, as long as it doesn't cost the company any extra money.

The argument that antibiotic use in chickens cannot be part of the problem simply because it's been done for decades really sounds like something out of the tobacco industry's playbook. It's about as ignorant an argument as you can get, really. Just because something has been routinely done for a long time is not a guarantee of safety, especially when scientists have clearly demonstrated how routine use of these drugs in animals promotes resistance in bacteria.

Many tests have also shown that at least half of all meats sold in the U.S. is contaminated with some form of bacteria, including drug-resistant ones. According to the CDC,12 there are 12 antibiotic-resistant pathogens that pose a "serious" threat to public health, and one-third of them are found in food.

Viable Alternatives to Antibiotics Exist

Sanderson claims it cannot produce healthy chickens without antibiotics, yet Perdue has already been doing it for well over a decade. In lieu of antibiotics, Perdue keeps its birds healthy using natural remedies like probiotics and oregano. As in humans, by keeping the chickens' intestines "well-seeded" with healthy bacteria, pathogens are suppressed and immune function is boosted.

Certain strains of probiotics (which Perdue guards as a trade secret) have also been shown to boost the chickens' growth rate. As noted by Mother Jones, Perdue has also taken a number of other steps to improve the wellbeing of its flocks:13

"Perdue even turns off the lights in the chicken houses for four hours a night so the birds can rest. In the past, lights were left on 24 hours per day on the theory that chickens kept awake eat more and thus get fatter faster. Reducing stress by letting the birds rest ... makes them healthier — and since healthy birds grow faster, the extra sleep has the same effect as constant feeding."

Another alternative warranting further investigation would be colloidal silver, which has a history of use that stretches back thousands of years. As noted in a 2013 study,14 which assessed silver's ability to reduce or prevent post-surgical infections, its bactericidal activity is well established. Researchers have also demonstrated that silver can boost the effectiveness of antibiotics by thousands of times.15

Antibiotic-Free Operations Require Strict Sanitation

Perdue and other poultry producers shared their insights on going antibiotic-free at this year's Poultry Science Association's meeting in New Orleans. Randolph Mitchell, vice president of technical services at Perdue Farms, noted that once you transition over to no-antibiotics-ever (NAE) or antibiotic-free (ABF) production, sanitation becomes a paramount priority. This is also what raises production costs, not reduced performance or increased mortality.

Meanwhile, Amy Batal, corporate nutritionist at Sanderson Farms questioned whether removing antibiotics is the responsible thing to do. As reported by

"Batal asked whether removing antibiotics because they might contribute to antimicrobial resistance in human medicine or because a segment of consumers don't want them is truly responsible. She argued antibiotic-free flocks need more time, energy, food and water than conventional birds. Using antibiotics, therefore, is the responsible choice. The nutritionist urged the audience to not work against its own interest."

Can You Believe the AUDACITY of Sanderson Farms?

Adding insult to injury, Sanderson Farms advertises their chicken as 100 percent natural, its slogan being that the only thing in their chicken is chicken.17 An interactive presentation on its website features cartoon chickens playing volleyball and lounging in front of fans, suggesting that Sanderson's chickens are well cared for and lead a rather splendid, carefree life.

Anyone who has ever seen the inside of a broiler concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) knows how unlikely it is for that representation to be true.

I fail to see how antibiotic-treated chicken are 100 percent natural. I'm fairly certain a large portion of the population would assume the "100 percent natural" label implies that the animals were raised in accordance with tradition, which does NOT include genetically engineered (GE) corn and soy or the routine use of antibiotics.

They're wrong, of course, since the "natural" label is completely unregulated and therefore has no meaning whatsoever. But it's ironic that while Sanderson creates a campaign to expose antibiotic-free labeling claims as a sham, it's using the natural label as if it actually means something. It's also interesting to note the timing of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) decision to audit meat and poultry claims this fall.

Claims such as antibiotic-free and hormone-free will be evaluated to ensure they're not misleading and that they are in compliance with regulations. According to Dan Engeljohn, USDA assistant administrator for the Office of Policy and Program Development: "Because there is a great deal of profit that can be made from mislabeled product that might be misleading, we do need to put a little focus there."18 I wonder whether Engeljohn will give the 100 percent natural label equal attention?

Tell Sanderson and KFC to Get With the Program

If you're as upset about Sanderson Farms' ignorance as I am, I suggest you contact Sanderson and tell him to do the right thing for public health and phase out antibiotics. You can use their online Contact Page to write them an email, or better yet, call them at 1-800-844-4030, or write a letter to:

Sanderson Farms
Attn: Joe Sanderson, CEO
PO Box 988
Laurel, MS 39441

KFC is another major food company that has so far failed to take the situation seriously. While many restaurant chains, including McDonald's, Subway and Taco Bell have vowed to limit or discontinue use of chicken raised with antibiotics, KFC has made no move in that direction. You can reach KFC by calling 1-800-CALL-KFC, or fill out their feedback form, available on the KFC website.