By JACK WEATHERLY
Several consumer advocacy groups have sued Laurel-based Sanderson Farms Inc. for allegedly using antibiotics and other chemicals in its chicken that the producer advertises as “100% natural.”
The Organic Consumers Association, Friends of the Earth and the Center for Food Safety filed the complaint June 22 in the U.S. District Court for Northern California against Sanderson, the nation’s third-largest poultry producer.
Sanderson issued a statement on June 23 that says that while it “generally does not comment on pending litigation . . . the allegations in this lawsuit bear upon food quality and safety. 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. . . . Company veterinarians do, or rare occasions, prescribe penicillin to treat sick poultry flocks.
“In its 70-year history, Sanderson Farms has never been cited by the United States Department of Agriculture or any other regulatory body for violation of any residue law, rule or regulation.”
Yet the lawsuit states that “when tested by governmental entities, Sanderson’s chicken have been found to contain residues of antibiotics important for human medicine, residues of veterinary antibiotics, and other pharmaceuticals, as well as residues of hormones, steroids, and pesticides. . . . [Sixty-nine] inspections [were made] in 2015 and 2016 at Sanderson facilities, and in 33% of those inspections Sanderson samples tested positive for such residues.”
Sanderson said in its statement that beyond the penicillin used for ailing flocks “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 complaint contends that Sanderson uses antibiotics “prophylactically.”
Sanderson’s marketing includes videos featuring two actors known as “Bob” and “Dale” wearing Sanderson ball caps and dressed like farm hands, extolling, as one video says, the company’s “honest chicken.”
Despite the statement issued by Sanderson on Friday, Lampkin Butts, president and chief operating officer for the company, was quoted in an interview with The New York Times in August as defending the use of antibiotics, calling “its competitors’ efforts in the other direction a ‘marketing gimmick’ aimed at charging higher prices.”
The four other major producers use antibiotics in the raising of their poultry, though they are taking steps to reduce, if not eliminate, them, according to The Times. Critics of such use contend that it contributes to antibiotics resistance in humans.
Butts said in the Times article that “there is not any credible science that leads us to believe we’re causing antibiotic resistance in humans.”
In one of the Sanderson advertising videos, seen on television and social media, “Bob” echoes Lampkin Butts by saying that competitors use the phrase ‘raised without antibiotics’ to get consumers to pay more money,” according to the suit.
The plaintiffs in the California case seek a jury trial, an accounting of profits from what they contend are misleading ads, an injunction to stop using the ads and an order to engage in a “corrective advertising campaign.”
Sanderson shares on the NasdaqGS stock market gained 72 cents on June 23 to close at $123.93.
Sanderson is a defendant in two other federal court cases, neither of which the company has discussed publicly.
Former contract chicken growers filed suit Jan. 27 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Oklahoma against Sanderson and three other major processors, seeking damages for what they contend is price fixing that squeezed them out of their livelihood.
Sanderson and 14 other processors were sued along the same lines last fall in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.
Both cases are pending.