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Judge Rules False Advertising Lawsuit Against Sanderson Poultry CAFO Will Proceed

Written by Dr. Joseph Mercola Fact Checked

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Story at-a-glance -

  • Sanderson Farms, the third-largest poultry producer in the U.S., has stood firm against the tide of calls to reduce antibiotic use, vowing to continue using the drugs in their chickens, going so far as to use it as a selling point
  • Sanderson Farms advertises their chicken as 100 percent natural. However, tests reveal a number of questionable and potentially hazardous drugs in Sanderson’s chicken
  • Center for Food Safety and Friends of the Earth filed a lawsuit against Sanderson June 22, 2017, alleging the company’s “100% Natural” claim is false and misleading, as testing reveals their chickens contain human and veterinary antibiotics, tranquilizers, growth hormones, steroids and pesticides
  • Sanderson’s motion to dismiss the case was recently denied and the lawsuit will move forward
  • Public pressure is finally starting to pay off. November 30, 2018, Sanderson announced it will discontinue two antibiotics deemed medically important for humans for disease prevention by March 1, 2019

There's overwhelming evidence showing that antibiotic use in livestock is driving the rise in antibiotic resistance, and many poultry producers — including Tyson Foods,1 Perdue2 and Pilgrim's Pride — have taken steps to curb antibiotic use in their live poultry production.

In recent years, a number of grocery and restaurant chains have also vowed to stop buying and selling chicken raised with antibiotics. Examples include Whole Foods Market, Chick-fil-A, Chipotle, Panera Bread and even McDonald's.

Six of the largest school districts in the U.S. (New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, Miami-Dade County and Orlando County) have also switched to antibiotic-free chicken in their cafeterias.

In contrast, Sanderson Farms,3 the third-largest poultry producer in the U.S., has stood firm against the tide of calls to reduce antibiotic use, vowing to continue using the drugs in their chickens, going so far as to use it as a selling point,4,5 while simultaneously advertising their chicken as "100% Natural."

A lawsuit filed against the company last year, charging Sanderson Farms with false advertising, is now moving forward. At the same time, Sanderson has announced it will discontinue using antibiotics deemed important for human health for disease prevention purposes in their production — a radical change in stance that shows public pressure is paying off.

For Years, Sanderson Farms Has Refused to Yield to Call for Antibiotic-Free Chicken

Remarkably, Sanderson Farms' CEO Joe Sanderson Jr. has actually gone on record saying antibiotics don't cause antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and that the shift away from antibiotics is nothing more than a marketing ploy to justify higher prices.6

Lampkin Butts, president and chief operating officer of Sanderson Farms, has also stated "There is not any credible science that leads us to believe we're causing antibiotic resistance in humans."7 In a 2016 press release, the company said:8

"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."

All of this despite ample amounts of research demonstrating the very real dangers of agricultural antibiotic use. Sanderson has also attempted to confuse people by pointing out 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 to ensure the drugs are no longer in the animals' system.

However, this doesn't address the actual concerns about antibiotic use in chickens, because even if the antibiotics are no longer present in the meat, the resistant bacteria are present and they are the primary problem.

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,9 it's not the most significant one.

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How Sanderson Defended Its Continued Use of Antibiotics

In 2015, Food Business News quoted a statement from Sanderson Farms that said:10 "[A]fter doing our homework, we do not plan to withdraw antibiotics from our program, and there are three main reasons.

1. Animal welfare — "We feel like we need to take care of the animals in our care … There's one thing that you cannot take care of if you don't use antibiotics and that is enteritis in the chicken... Particularly when there's no evidence whatsoever that using these antibiotics really does cause antibiotic resistant bacteria."

2. Sustainability and environmental responsibility — "It's going to take more chicken houses, more electricity, more water, more acres of corn and more acres of soybeans ... So you're going to have to grow these chickens longer and use all that to achieve the same market weight."

3. Food safety — "We have all been busting our behinds to reduce the microbiology loads, the microorganism loads, on these chickens coming to the plants. And everybody knows what happened in Europe when they took antibiotics away.

All those loads went up on the chicken. So you're talking food safety. You take antibiotics out, and you're going to have more campylobacter, more salmonella ..."

Sanderson's stance clearly flies in the face of science. If you cause antibiotic resistance to develop in the animals, you're inevitably causing it in humans. Recent research11 has even linked drug-resistant infections in more than 100 people to antibiotic-resistant bacteria in puppies given antibiotics prophylactically!

Lance Price, head of George Washington University's Antibiotic Resistance Action Center, called the findings "shocking," saying,12 "This is an important study that's shining a light on something that we need to spend more time on." According to the authors of the report:

"Outbreak isolates were resistant by antibiotic susceptibility testing to all antibiotics commonly used to treat Campylobacter infections. This outbreak demonstrates that puppies can be a source of multidrug-resistant Campylobacter infections in humans, warranting a closer look at antimicrobial use in the commercial dog industry."

Drug-Resistant Bacteria in and on Food Can Have Very Real Impact on Human Health

A 2015 mortality and morbidity report13 by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed just how difficult it's been to curb these pathogenic bacteria, with prevalence of some types of drug-resistant bacteria falling while others are taking over in their stead.

In 2014 alone, more than 19,540 Americans contracted confirmed drug-resistant infections from food, and 71 of them died as a result. A report commissioned by U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron estimates that by 2050 antibiotic resistance will have killed 300 million people; the annual global death toll reaching 10 million.14

In November 2017, a report15 by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also revealed the number of Americans infected with multidrug-resistant Salmonella via contaminated food is on the rise, increasing from 9 percent in 2014 to 12 percent in 2015, and poultry is a primary source of these infections.

According to the FDA, the Salmonella was resistant to as many as four first-line antibiotics. So, for Sanderson to claim that antibiotic use in their poultry production has no bearing on human health is a shameful denial of scientific facts.

Tests Reveal Sanderson's 'All-Natural' Chicken Is Anything But

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.16 However, last summer, tests conducted by the National Residue Program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service revealed a number of questionable and potentially hazardous drugs in Sanderson's chicken, including but not limited to:

  • Ketamine (a hallucinogenic party drug)
  • Prednisone (a steroid)
  • Ketoprofen (an anti-inflammatory)
  • Penicillin (for which the residue regulatory limit is zero)
  • The synthetic growth hormone melengestrol acetate and the beta agonist ractopamine — two substances banned in poultry production

Sanderson Sued Over Their Use of '100% Natural' Claim

In response to these findings, Center for Food Safety and Friends of the Earth filed a lawsuit against Sanderson June 22, 2017, alleging the company's "100% Natural" claim is false and misleading, as testing reveals their chickens contain human and veterinary antibiotics, tranquilizers, growth hormones, steroids and pesticides.17

The plaintiffs seek "accounting of profits, injunctive relief, corrective advertising and attorney's fees." At the time, a representative for the Organic Consumers Association said,18 "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."

Since its filing last year, the lawsuit has been dismissed twice. It turns out the third time was the charm. Meat + Poultry recently reported19 Sanderson's motion to dismiss the case, filed for the third time, was denied and the case will finally move forward. Kari Hamerschlag, deputy director of Food and Agriculture at Friends of the Earth, commented on the judge's decision:20

"After years of misleading the public and denying the public health risks associated with overuse of antibiotics in animal production, we welcome the judges' decision to allow our lawsuit against Sanderson Farms to continue."

 Meat + Poultry further reports:21

"Sanderson argued that the plaintiffs' allegations were insufficient to support the litigation, and that the plaintiffs cannot challenge the company's '100% Natural' slogan without considering the full context of an advertisement in which the slogan is used.

But U.S. District Court Judge Richard Seeborg disagreed, writing '… Review, to the contrary, is limited to the four corners of a specific webpage at issue. No authority suggests a reasonable consumer is expected to search a company's entire website (or certainly all of a company's statements across all forms of advertisements) to find all possible disclaimers.

This is not akin to disclaimers being adjacent to the challenged statements. Although the reasonable consumer standard demands that a plaintiff must show 'more than a mere possibility' that a challenged advertisement might conceivably mislead a few consumers … it does not ask they be private investigators as defendant appears to suggest.'

Writing about Sanderson's 'Bob and Dale' commercials, Seeborg wrote: 'By criticizing its competitor's advertising as misleading to consumers, Sanderson's commercial is likely to mislead reasonable consumers into believing that Sanderson products were no different than its competitors who never used antibiotics in their chicken production.

Plaintiffs have sufficiently alleged Sanderson's actions are likely to mislead reasonable consumers to believe Sanderson's products are the same as competitors that never administer antibiotics during their production, for which a reasonable consumer is willing to pay a premium.'"

Years of Public Pressure on Sanderson Farms Are Paying Off

In May 2016, 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. Earlier this year, investors also started applying pressure, urging Sanderson Farms to reconsider their routine use of the drugs.

According to Reuters,22 a proposal to end the use of medically important antibiotics for disease prevention in chickens "received the support of 43 percent of votes cast at the company's annual meeting," held February 15, 2018. That's 13 percent higher than a similar proposal presented in 2017, when only 30 percent of investors voted to end the company's use of antibiotics.

It now seems all this pressure is finally starting to pay off. November 30, 2018, Sanderson announced23,24 it will discontinue two antibiotics deemed "medically important for humans for disease prevention" by March 1, 2019. The antibiotics in question are gentamicin (used in chicks) and virginiamycin (added to chicken feed).

According to Sanderson's press release,25 "The change follows the completion of an independent study the Company commissioned earlier this year on its antibiotics program for its live operations."

While the company-commissioned study "found no misuse of antibiotics at Sanderson Farms or other deficiencies in its program," the advisory board concluded that "[a] move by [Sanderson Farms] to a system where nonmedically important antibiotics . . . can be used for prevention, and medically important antibiotics can be used for treatment and control of disease, could represent a responsible compromise to better preserve efficacy of antibiotics important for human health, while also avoiding the adverse impacts … on chicken health and welfare."

For clarity, Sanderson will still use antibiotics to treat and control disease. It is not a blanket elimination of antibiotics from their production; they just won't use these two medically necessary antibiotics for the prevention of disease. Still, it's a small step in the right direction.

Rebecca Spector, west coast director at Center for Food Safety, commented on the judge's ruling to proceed with their lawsuit, and on Sanderson's decision to stop using medically important antibiotics:26

"We are pleased that this lawsuit can now move forward and believe that Sanderson Farms is taking a good first step toward eliminating the use of medically important antibiotic use in livestock production.

We hope Sanderson will utilize a third-party certifier to verify these production practices so that consumers can be assured that these chickens were raised without routine use of antibiotics."

Tell Sanderson What You Think of Their 100% Natural Claim

Sanderson Farms is the lone holdout for routine antibiotic use in poultry production. Considering they're the third largest poultry producer in the U.S., they can have a big impact on antibiotic-resistant disease and human health. While it's great news that the lawsuit against the company is moving forward, you can still push for change by contacting Joe Sanderson directly, to let him know that antibiotic-free does indeed matter.

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

Strategies to Protect Yourself and Limit Spread of Drug-Resistant Bacteria

For years, experts have warned we may soon be at a point where virtually all antibiotics fail, and once that happens, it will be devastating to modern medicine. What can you do to minimize your risk? Three key recommendations that can help reduce your risk for antibiotic-resistant infections include:

  1. Avoiding antibiotics unless your infection is severe enough to warrant it
  2. Staying out of hospitals as much as possible — Treatment using medical scopes is particularly risky.27 Also remember that antibiotics do not work for viral infections such as cold or flu
  3. Buying only organic or biodynamic grass fed meats and animal products — Remember nearly all meat served in restaurants and on planes are raised in factory farms and therefore more prone to contamination with potentially drug-resistant bacteria

The following practical in-home suggestions will also reduce your risk:

1. Avoid antibacterial household products such as antibacterial soaps, hand sanitizers and wipes, as these promote antibiotic resistance by allowing the strongest bacteria to survive and thrive in your home.

2. Properly wash your hands with warm water and plain soap, to prevent the spread of bacteria — Be particularly mindful of washing your hands and kitchen surfaces after handling raw meats, as about half of all meat sold in American grocery stores is likely to be contaminated with pathogenic bacteria. Avoid antibiotic soaps that typically have dangerous chemicals like triclosan.

3. Take commonsense precautions in the kitchen — Kitchens are notorious breeding grounds for disease-causing bacteria, courtesy of contaminated meat products, including antibiotic-resistant strains of E-coli. To avoid cross-contamination between foods in your kitchen, adhere to the following recommendations:

Use a designated cutting board, preferably wood, not plastic, for raw meat and poultry, and never use this board for other food preparation, such as cutting up vegetables. Color coding your cutting boards is a simple way to distinguish between them.

To sanitize your cutting board, use hot water and detergent. Simply wiping it off with a rag will not destroy the bacteria. Coconut oil can be used to clean, treat and sanitize your wooden cutting boards. It's loaded with lauric acid that has potent antimicrobial actions. The fats will also help condition the wood.

For an inexpensive, safe and effective kitchen counter and cutting board sanitizer, use 3 percent hydrogen peroxide and vinegar. Keep each liquid in a separate spray bottle, and then spray the surface with one, followed by the other, and wipe off.