Tyson chicken is not antibiotic-free

Tyson Foods has been claiming to sell “chicken raised without antibiotics” since the summer of 2007, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture does not consider that label to be “truthful and accurate”:

After Tyson began labeling its chicken antibiotic-free, the USDA warned the company that such labels were not truthful, because Tyson regularly treats its birds’ feed with bacteria-killing ionophores. Tyson argued that ionophores are antimicrobials rather than antibiotics, but the USDA reiterated its policy that “ionophores are antibiotics.”

Because ionophores are not used to treat human disease, however, the poultry company suggested a compromise, accepted by the USDA in December, whereby Tyson would use a label reading “raised without antibiotics that impact antibiotic resistance in humans.”

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, USDA inspectors discovered that in addition to using ionophores, Tyson was regularly injecting its chicken eggs with gentamicin, an antibiotic that has been used for more than 30 years in the United States to treat urinary tract and blood infections. The drug is also stockpiled by the federal government as a treatment for biological agents such as plague.

“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 main public health concern is the growth of drug-resistant bacteria, which is thought to be related to the widespread use of antibiotics in conventional agriculture.

Tyson Foods is suing the USDA, “claiming that the agency had improperly changed the definition of ‘raised without antibiotics’ to include the treatment of eggs.”

However the lawsuit is resolved, I consider this controversy another reason to avoid buying Tyson chicken. You might want to bring this issue to your school’s administrators or parent-teacher association if they encourage you to buy Tyson products as part of the Tyson Project A+ label collection program.

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My son's school wants me to buy Tyson foods

cross-posted at La Vida Locavore and the EENR progressive blog

My son just started kindergarten in the Des Moines public system. His school has a wonderful and caring staff, and he is having a great time, as he did in the pre-school program there.

Unfortunately, like almost all public schools these days, this school relies on fundraising by the parents’ group to pay for essential school supplies.

The parents’ group decided years ago not to have our kids sell chocolate or wrapping paper or some other overpriced product to raise money, and I appreciate that.

They have opted this year to participate in the Tyson Project A+ label collection program, which is sponsored by Tyson Foods, Inc.

A sheet went home with my son encouraging parents to clip and save Tyson Project A+ labels, which are worth 24 cents each for the school:

Through this program, we can raise as much as $12,000 for our school this year! The money we raise can go towards buying books or computers, making improvements to our buildings, or anything else that we want.

Here is a list of 53 Tyson chicken products with labels I can clip and collect for the school.

Most Tyson chicken products contain meat from birds that have been treated with antibiotics, which may be a leading contributor to drug-resistant bacteria.

Tyson fired several employees earlier this year following reports of excessive cruelty at two of its factories.

Two years ago, Tyson had to pay $1.5 million in back pay for hiring discrimination. In 2002, the U.S. Department of Labor sued the company for pay practices that violated the Fair Labor Standards Act. In 2005, Tyson Foods paid the state of Kentucky $184,515 to settle six cases related to worker safety, including one that stemmed from a fatal accident.

Tyson also has a history of profiting from the employment of illegal immigrants. In fact, some of its managers were involved in recruiting illegal immigrants to work at Tyson factories, which led to a

36-count federal indictment that prosecutors obtained against Tyson in December 2001. The company was charged in U.S. District Court in Chattanooga with having, among other things, engaged in an elaborate seven-year scheme to recruit hundreds, if not thousands, of illegal immigrants from Mexico and Guatemala for its poultry plants in at least 12 states. Six of Tyson’s mid-level executives or plant managers were also indicted. But in the end, even though Tyson was benefiting from illegal workers laboring in its plants, the executives avoided conviction.

It was the most ambitious criminal immigration case ever against an employer. Prosecutors demanded $100 million as a forfeiture penalty that they said represented the company’s ill-gotten gains. The transcript for the six-and-a-half-week trial ran 5,464 pages. On March 26, the jury rendered its verdict: not guilty on all counts.

The sting had caught several Tyson managers or their assistants on audiotape and videotape plotting to recruit and hire illegal aliens for several plants, including the one at Shelbyville. Seven Tyson employees, whom the company eventually fired, had quietly pleaded guilty to immigration-related offenses.

During the late 1990s, Tyson employed 67,000 workers at 55 poultry plants. Court testimony established that a number of those workers were illegal, some hired directly and some through temp agencies.

I buy chicken directly from sustainable farmers or from the Wholesome Harvest coalition of small organic family farmers, which has been endorsed by the Organic Consumers Association. I don’t like feeling pressure to buy Tyson chicken products in order to pay for classroom supplies and school improvements.

Inadequate funding for public schools is the root of this problem. The parents’ group organizes several fundraising projects during the year, including a chili supper and silent auction which is always a success. But it’s not easy to raise significant funds without urging kids to sell products people don’t need. A concert for the school, featuring a famous children’s artist, lost money two years ago.

Programs like Tyson Project A+ probably seem like a good deal to parents who would be buying some of these foods anyway. For my part, I plan to donate $50 directly to the parents’ group. I’d have to buy more than 200 Tyson products to raise an equivalent amount through this label collection program.

UPDATE: Thanks to ragbrai08, who noted that I forgot to mention Tyson’s settlement with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in November 2006 “for $871,000 on behalf of black workers who alleged that they were racially harassed and retaliated against at a chicken processing plant in Ashland, Alabama.”

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