A federal judge in Baltimore ordered Tyson Foods yesterday to stop using a recent advertising campaign because he says it is misleading consumers into believing that the poultry giant is raising its chickens drug-free. The U.S. District Court ruling comes in response to a lawsuit filed against the company by Salisbury-based Perdue Farms and Sanderson Farms of Mississippi.
A federal judge in Baltimore ordered Tyson Foods yesterday to stop using a recent advertising campaign because he says it is misleading consumers into believing that the poultry giant is raising its chickens drug-free.
The U.S. District Court ruling comes in response to a lawsuit filed against the company by Salisbury-based Perdue Farms and Sanderson Farms of Mississippi.
The competing poultry producers claim that they're losing millions of dollars to Tyson because its advertising falsely claims that the company's birds are not medicated.
All three producers feed their chickens food containing antibiotic "ionophores," which prevent intestinal illness and are largely considered harmless antibiotics. But Tyson is the only one implying that its chickens are safer for consumers to eat. The case has highlighted concerns about food safety and how companies use marketing tactics to gain an edge over competitors.
Judge Richard D. Bennett said Tyson must remove any advertising from grocery stores and elsewhere that highlights the medical claim.
In a 31-page opinion issued yesterday afternoon, Bennett said Perdue and Sanderson were likely to win the case going forward.
"Having heard the testimony of numerous witnesses, including experts proffered by the parties, and having reviewed hundreds of exhibits, this Court finds that consumers are being misled by Tyson's advertisements," Bennett wrote.
He granted a preliminary injunction ordering the Arkansas company to "immediately cease" all advertising that claims Tyson poultry is "raised without antibiotics" or "raised without antibiotics that impact antibiotic resistance in humans."
Tyson said it would appeal the decision in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond, Va., and seek a stay on the order.
"We strongly disagree with this decision and will appeal since we firmly believe we have acted responsibly in the way we have labeled and marketed our products," Dave Hogberg, senior vice president of consumer products for Tyson Foods, said in a statement.
"Our company has complied with federal regulations throughout the development of this product line and we intend to stand our ground."
Excessive antibiotic use in animals has raised health concerns in the medical community, which fears it could lead to drug-resistant bacteria taking hold in people. Ionophores aren't used in human medication, however, and are thought to be safe for animal treatment.
Last spring, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said Tyson could label its poultry packaging as "raised without antibiotics," which led the company to launch a similar advertising campaign. But the USDA said later that it had made a mistake and reversed its decision in the fall.
Tyson was supposed to pull all of that advertising. But during a four-day hearing this month in Baltimore, attorneys for Perdue and Sanderson showed photographs of the advertisements still in use at grocery stores throughout the country.
Eventually Tyson and the USDA reached a deal allowing the company to label its products as being raised without drugs that "impact antibiotic resistance in humans." But the plaintiffs produced a consumer survey that showed most people still thought that meant drug free.
Bennett's opinion said that "qualified" statement "is not likely to
be understood by a significant portion of the consumer public."