LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — The U.S. Department of Agriculture said Tuesday that Tyson Foods Inc. routinely gave chickens an antibiotic that can be used in humans, even though the company had defended its "raised without antibiotics" claim by saying it only used an antibiotic not used in people.
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The world's largest meat producer used gentamicin on its poultry, which has been administered for more than 30 years in the United States to treat a variety of infections in humans.
Springdale-based Tyson, responding to a federal lawsuit over labeling its poultry as "raised without antibiotics," already said it used ionophores in its chicken feed. Though widely considered an antibiotic, ionophores are not used to treat illnesses in humans and thus are not believed to raise human health concerns.
"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," Raymond said in a statement.
Amanda Eamich, a USDA spokeswoman, said the agency also sent a letter Monday night to Tyson, warning that it could not consider its no-antibiotics label as "truthful and accurate."
"The use of this particular antibiotic was not disclosed to us," Eamich said.
Tyson spokesman Gary Mickelson said the company used gentamicin during egg vaccinations, before the birth of a chicken. Mickelson described the vaccinations as a standard practice, as rules on labels describing how birds are "raised" typically start from the second day of life.
"While we agree with the agency that a public process is needed to sort out the many nuances of label claims describing on-farm practices, we respectfully disagree ... with any statements suggesting our products are anything less than safe and wholesome," Mickelson said in a statement.
Charles Hansen of the Truthful Labeling Coalition, whose members are Perdue Farms Inc., Sanderson Farms Inc. and Livingston, Calif.-based Foster Farms, had asked the USDA to rescind its approval for Tyson's labeling.
Hansen said Tuesday that eggs typically receive the gentamicin the day before the birds hatch and that the antibiotic takes several weeks to dissipate from their systems.
"The labels were clearly false and misleading," Hansen said.
On Monday, Tyson announced it would "voluntarily withdraw" labels claiming that its poultry products didn't contain antibiotics, after a federal court issued an injunction stopping the company from making the claim in its advertising.
The company said it would ask the USDA to start "a public process to bring more clarity and consistency to labeling and advertising rules" on antibiotic claims.
Raymond's statement said the USDA had ordered Tyson on Monday night to stop using the "raised without antibiotics" labels by June 18, something Mickelson called "unrealistic."
U.S. District Judge Richard Bennett in Baltimore had set a May 15 deadline to stop Tyson from running any of the advertisements, including in-store posters and brochures. The injunction came after competitors Perdue and Sanderson sued, claiming Tyson's advertising was misleading.
Sanderson, based in Laurel, Miss., has argued it lost a $4 million account to Tyson because of the advertising campaign, and Salisbury, Md.-based Perdue claims it has lost about $10 million in revenue since last year.
Shares of Tyson fell $1.47 , or nearly 8 percent, to $16.98 on Tuesday.
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