Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Tyson Chicken - True or False?

Photo courtesy: oklahoma.sierraclub.org/.../Pages/cafo.html
In one of the most flagrant cases of disregard for the health of the public; truth in advertising laws; and, on a par with, “I did not have sex with that woman!” is Tyson Foods’ claim regarding their chicken.

Tyson Foods is the world’s largest meat processor and the second largest chicken producer in the United States. They label their chicken as raised without antibiotics relying heavily on the “homey” feel of chickens being raised on the family farm of Grandpa and Grandma Middle America. It’s enough to send me (a long-time vegetarian) back to eating chicken. After all, what could be more wholesome?

Tyson has spent tens of millions of dollars on this “down home, feel good” campaign in response to scientific findings that the use of antibodies in animal agriculture could lead to increased amounts of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in humans, which in turn could lead to a pandemic or health crisis. (Remember this statement later on in this blog).

However, in 2007, questions were raised about Tyson’s labeling its chicken as “antibiotic-free” since Tyson regularly treats its birds’ feed with bacteria-killing ionophores. The US Department of Agriculture wanted to remove the antibiotic-free label from Tyson’s chickens for being untruthful. Tyson Foods argued that ionophores are antimicrobials rather than antibiotics; but, the USDA reminded Tyson of its policy that “ionophores are antibiotics”.

Most poultry farmers regularly treat chickens and other birds with antibiotics (the same as they do other food animals) to prevent the development of intestinal infections that might reduce the weight (and profitability) of the birds. With scientists raising the alarm about the dangers of treating food birds with antibiotics and a move by the general public to more organic food, the claim that their chicken was antibiotic-free was a huge hammer to use on the competition.

Ionophores are not used to treat human disease so Tyson suggested a compromise, accepted by the USDA in December. Tyson would use a label reading "raised without antibiotics that impact antibiotic resistance in humans." This claim has since been proved false.

Tyson's competitors Perdue Farms Inc., Sanderson Farms Inc. and Foster Farms sued, under the banner of the Truthful Labeling Coalition. In May 2008, a federal judge ruled in their favor and told Tyson to stop using the label.

Not long after, on June 3, 2008, USDA inspectors discovered that using ionophores was just a minor no-no compared to what was happening in the hen houses. Seems the fox may have been in charge of the hen house after all.

The USDA inspectors also found that Tyson was regularly injecting its chicken eggs (two days before hatching) with gentamicin, an antibiotic that has been used for more than 30 years in the US and other countries to treat urinary tract and blood infections.

Let’s bring our statement we’re supposed to remember back: Tyson has spent tens of millions of dollars on this “down home, feel good” campaign in response to scientific findings that the use of antibodies in animal agriculture could lead to increased amounts of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in humans, which in turn could lead to a pandemic or health crisis.

The more antibiotics we consume in our diets the more resistant our disease bacteria learn to become so it becomes harder and harder to cure an illness; until, eventually, we cannot cure that illness anymore and it now becomes a fatal disease. The more disease-specific antibiotics are even better if mass destruction is what you are after.

Governments stockpile antibiotics for use in pandemics when production of them may not be possible; but, they can only stockpile for a certain number of possibilities. They decide on the most probable outcomes and make plans accordingly.

"In contrast to information presented by Tyson Foods Inc., [inspectors] found that they routinely used the antibiotic gentamicin to prevent illness and death in chicks, which raises public health concerns," said USDA Undersecretary for Food Safety Richard Raymond.

"The use of this particular antibiotic was not disclosed to us," said USDA spokesperson Amanda Eamich. Gentamicin is stockpiled by the US government and; probably, the Canadian government as well to treat outbreaks like the plague.

Now, this is the part that almost left me speechless. However, as you can see from the size of this blog, I’ve managed to get over it and I shall press on bravely. I expect to be lied to – I’m 55 (my days of naivetie are over). However, I do not appreciate having my intelligence insulted in such a manner as Tyson Foods expecting me to believe this codswallop they are slinging about why their chickens are raised antibiotic-free.

The USDA told Tyson that based on this previously-unknown information; it would no longer consider the antibiotic-free label "truthful and accurate.”

Tyson objecting by claiming that because the antibiotics are injected into the egg two or three days before the chickens hatched, the birds can truthfully be said to be “raised with antibiotics”. Tyson maintains that the USDA rules governing the raising of birds do not address anything that happens before the second day of life.

Tyson Foods also defended the "in ovo" injection of antibiotics as standard industry practice with Vice President, Archie Schaffer, saying, “the vast majority of the industry does exactly the same thing." What Tyson Foods neglected to reveal is that gentamicin takes several weeks to dissipate; so, the drugs are still in the birds’ bodies after they hatch.

Tyson agreed to voluntarily withdraw its "raised without antibiotics labels," citing "uncertainty and controversy over product labeling regulations." It then filed a lawsuit against the USDA, claiming that the agency had improperly changed the definition of "raised without antibiotics" to include the treatment of eggs.

Tyson is asking to have the regulation to be thrown out. Let’s hope it’s Tyson that gets thrown out.

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