Did Tyson’s ‘antibiotic-free’ chicken claims mislead consumers?

\"I think Tyson needs Responsible Marketing.\"

By Dan Murphy, Guest Blogger

Back in June 2007, Tyson Foods, the nation’s No. 1 chicken processor, launched a new “Raised Without Antibiotics” natural chicken line. Along with a self-congratulatory ad campaign, the Springdale, Ark.-based firm touted its new product as the solution to the contentious issue of using low-level antibiotics as a growth enhancer in broiler chickens.

Now, a Federal District Court this week ruled in a lawsuit brought by Perdue Farms, one of Tyson’s biggest competitors, that Tyson’s Raised Without Antibiotics labeling – although previously vetted by USDA – is misleading and must be rescinded. The reason? Tyson was using antibiotic-like substances called ionophores in its “antibiotic-free” chickens.

A quick primer: Conventional antibiotics are used in poultry and pork production at low levels to control intestinal bacteria and enhance feed efficiency. The practice has drawn considerable fire from health authorities concerned that it worsens the danger of antibiotic-resistant pathogens that impact human health, such as “Multiple-Resistant Staphylococcus aureus,” a pathogen responsible for numerous severe hospital infections and even deaths.

Ionophores are a little different, in that they’re synthesized naturally by certain microorganisms, and only specific ones are able to disrupt cellular functioning – the end result of using antibiotics to destroy infectious bacteria in either veterinary or human disease treatment.

So should Tyson be taken to task for marketing Raised Without Antibiotics chicken, when in fact the firm was using a substance that looks like an antibiotic, acts like an antibiotic and sparks the same controversy as conventional agricultural antibiotics?

The technical answer is no. USDA pre-approved Tyson’s label, only to later reverse itself and declare that, “Some labels for poultry products have been approved in error.” Moreover, Tyson’s ads stated that, “Tyson fresh chicken [is] raised without antibiotics that impact antibiotic resistance in humans.” Again, technically true.

You can practically hear the refrain echo across Tyson’s board room: “We did nothing wrong.”

But as part of its 2007 rollout, Lisa Hark, PhD, director of Nutrition Education at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, told the media that, “Antibiotic resistance is one of the most pressing public health problems in the country.”

Really? As opposed to AIDS, gun violence, juvenile diabetes or even obesity?

It’s a bit disingenuous for the industry trade groups Tyson supports to argue that agricultural antibiotics are but a bit player in the larger drama of bacterial resistance, while Tyson hails the suspension of such feed additives as a major development in advancing public health.

More importantly, Tyson’s feigned innocence in the labeling lawsuit would be a lot more believable had the firm voluntarily withdrawn its labeling, rather than waiting to see if it might prevail in court.

Such a “victory,” had it occurred, would have been quickly reversed in the court of public opinion. And at the end of the day, isn’t that the venue that matters most to a food company trading on an image of responsibility in the production and labeling of chicken products its ads position as “feeding American families?”

Comment below to weigh in.

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Dan Murphy is a Strategist + Principal at Outsource Marketing, and regularly writes on food industry topics for publications nationwide. Over the last 25 years he’s served as editor-in-chief of six different business magazines, ranging from clinical medicine to food processing to licensed apparel.

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