Food companies can't be blamed for jumping on the organic bandwagon. Companies can, however, be blamed for claiming that their products are organic or are free of antibiotics when they aren't.
In late April, a federal appeals court ruled that Tyson Foods must cease advertising its chicken as being free of antibiotics. That put a halt to a multimillion-dollar ad campaign. At the time, the company claimed that the ruling did not apply to its product labels, which were approved by the Department of Agriculture.
On Monday, though, the company issued a news release saying it will stop using the labels. The release doesn't mention the court ruling (and neither, by the way, do the Reuters or Associated Press rewrites of the release), it simply says the company is "voluntarily" yanking the labels "due to uncertainty and controversy over product labeling regulations and advertising claims."
The "controversy" is better described as a massive lawsuit brought against Tyson by two of its competitors, Sanderson Farms and Perdue Farms, which both claim they have lost millions of dollars because the labels misled consumers into believing that Tyson's chicken was healthier than theirs.
Tyson says it has asked the USDA to "to consider initiating a public process to bring more clarity and consistency to labeling and advertising rules involving antibiotic-related product claims and all raising claims in general."
Hear hear. But in the meantime, Tyson could help out by bringing more clarity to the issue itself.
A little over a year ago, the USDA approved a label for Tyson's chicken that said "Raised Without Antibiotics." Last fall, the USDA declared that it had made a mistake â€" Tyson, like its competitors, used chicken feed containing ionophores, an antimicrobial that is widely (though not universally) considered an antibiotic in terms of its effect on the animals that eat it, and the people who eat the animals.
Tyson changed its label to "Chicken Raised Without Antibiotics That Impact Antibiotic Resistance in Humans."
Sanderson Farms and Perdue Farms object to both labels in their lawsuit. None of the companies use antibiotics "that impact antibiotic resistance in humans," they note in their lawsuit, so the claim is meaningless and misleading.
In the company's statement, Dave Hogberg, Tyson's senior vice president of consumer products, said the USDA needs to clarify the rules "to preserve the integrity of our label and our reputation as a premier company in the food industry."
The company, though, could have helped to preserve its own integrity by not making the claim until the USDA clarified the rules. It knew all along that -- though there is a dispute about it -- many scientists and watchdog groups believe ionophores to be classifiable as antibiotics. Its competitors knew that, too, which is why they didn't make the claim.