Three non-profit organizations, the Center for Food Safety, Friends of the Earth and the Organic Consumers Association, filed the lawsuit in the US District Court for the Northern District of California last week.
The poultry producing company is making claims in its advertising about its products being natural, said Paige Tomaselli, senior attorney at the Center for Food Safety and co-counsel on the case.
“We felt the need to take this step based on the information that we received about the drug reside and information from our membership,” she told FeedNavigator. “We feel that consumers are being deceived in purchasing Sanderson Farms’ chicken.”
The non-profits allege the meat products generated should not be advertised with a 100% natural label because of residues reportedly found on products, according to the filing.
Natural label - consumer survey
The groups noted in their complaint that in a 2015 Consumer Reports survey, respondents reported they believed the following about meat and poultry products dubbed 'natural':
(a) The animals were given no artificial growth hormones (64%);
(b) No artificial ingredients or colors were added (65%);
(c) The animals’ feed contained no artificial ingredients or colors (61%);
(d) The animals’ feed contained no GMOs (59%);
(e) No antibiotics or other drugs were ever used (57%); and
(f) The animals went outdoors (50%).
Though, Tomaselli said in relation to this case: “It’s not necessarily about GMO feed or corn. It’s about the [use of] synthetic drugs as feed additives.”
The group asked for a trial by jury and for Sanderson to pay for the costs of the litigation, according to the compliant. They also asked for Sanderson to conduct a corrective advertising campaign.
The next step is to receive an official response from Sanderson, she said.
Sanderson’s response in detail
The chicken producer said it does not typically comment on pending litigation. However, it did this time out, saying:
“The company unequivocally states it does not administer the antibiotics, other chemicals and pesticides, or ‘other pharmaceuticals’ listed in the complaint to its flocks, with one exception. To suggest otherwise is false and irresponsible.”
The company does administer penicillin to its flocks when needed, said Sanderson. However, antibiotics are used in accordance with guidance from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which includes a withdrawal period, added the company.
“Most all of the other drugs and chemicals cited in the complaint are not approved for use in chickens, and some would be lethal to chickens,” the company said. It also claims that the USDA, or other regulatory agency, has never cited the company for violating a “residue law, rule or regulation.”
The company is planning to fight the complaint, it said.
“Sanderson Farms will vigorously defend this lawsuit,” the company said. “The company also intends to continue its marketing and advertising campaign to educate consumers on its position regarding the judicious use of FDA-approved medicines to treat sick chickens and to prevent disease in chicken flocks. Such use is consistent with Sanderson Farms’ animal welfare obligations to the animals under its care, its environmental sustainability efforts and the company’s obligations regarding food safety.”
The lawsuit makes the claim that Sanderson is misleading in the way that it advertises several of its chicken products, the non-profits said in their complaint.
“It knows consumers will buy more of, and pay more for, a natural product, and for a product that originates from animals raised humanely, animals raised with higher welfare standards, or animals raised without intensive use of pharmaceuticals,” the groups said. The company also misleads consumers about its use of antibiotics and pharmaceuticals, they claimed.
Consumers buying the products are harmed because they pay more for a product than they would if they knew it was from a chicken that was exposed to antibiotics or other pharmaceuticals or was raised in unnatural conditions, the group said.
The reviews done by the National Residue Program reportedly found 49 instances in 2015 and 2016 where samples from Sanderson products tested positive for synthetic drug residues, the group claimed in its complaint. Some of the residues reportedly found in these assessments included antibiotics, other pharmaceuticals, like ractopamine, and pesticides.
The information used in the complaint is public and was gather through the use of Freedom of Information Act claims, said Tomaselli.
“We get the sense that at least some are being deliberately added,” she alleged.
Information from the group’s science advisors suggests that the amounts found, and the way that some of the products appear to have built up over time may indicate intentional use, she said. However, she declined to specify which products fall into that category.