Sanderson Farms''100% Natural' Chicken Found To Contain Ketamine, Antibiotics

By Paul Gaita 07/06/17

Consumer groups want Sanderson Farms to admit that it violated false advertising laws by claiming that its products are "100% natural."

Female hand selecting fresh, packaged chicken in a supermarket.

A trio of non-profit consumer advocacy groups has filed a lawsuit against the third-largest poultry company in the United States after federal health inspectors found traces of dangerous—and in some cases, restricted—pharmaceutical substances in their chicken, which the company bills as "100% natural."

The Organic Consumers Association (OCA), Friends of the Earth (FoE) and Center for Food Safety filed suit on June 22 against Sanderson Farms, Inc., after learning that traces of antibiotics, steroids, growth hormones banned in chicken production and even ketamine, a powerful anesthetic with anti-depressive and hallucinogenic properties, were found on multiple occasions during inspections of the company's processing plants by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Sanderson Farms, which earned $2.816 billion from the sale of its chicken to supermarkets, institutions and restaurant chains throughout California and the Southeast 2016, issued a statement in response to the suit that asserted their chicken contains no unnatural products beyond the occasional use of FDA-approved penicillin for "sick flocks."

The OCA said that they obtained the information about the tainted chicken through a Freedom of Information Act request, which revealed that between November 2015 and November 2016, the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Services (FSIS) conducted 69 inspections of Sanderson processing plants in five states, including Georgia and Texas.

In 33% of those visits, testing conducted by FSIS through its National Residue Program produced positive results for residues of unnatural substances. Among the synthetic drugs and pharmaceuticals found in residues by tests were antibiotics for human use, including chloramphenicol, which has been found to cause bone marrow suppression in humans, and amoxicillin, both of which are not approved for use in poultry.

Also found through residue testing were trace amounts of the prescription anti-inflammatory drug Ketoprofen, the steroid Prednisone, two growth hormones— melengestrol acetate and ractopamine—both banned in poultry production, and three instances of penicillin residue at up to 0.285 parts per billion (ppb). The regulatory limit for such residue is zero. The positive test results for ketamine and two pesticides—abamectin and Emamectin—may require additional testing, as they were both determined using testing methods usually applied to beef and/or pork.

The consumer groups want Sanderson Farms to admit that it violated false advertising laws with its claims of "100% Natural" products and pay for a corrective ad campaign. "Consumers should be alarmed that any food they eat contains steroids, recreational or anti-inflammatory drugs, or antibiotics prohibited for use in livestock—much less that these foods are falsely advertised and labeled '100% Natural,'" said Ronnie Cummings, OCA's international director. "Sanderson's advertising claims are egregiously misleading to consumers, and unfair to competitors."

Determining whether a product can be labeled 100% natural is handled by the USDA, which grants that label to a product if it contains "no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed"—meaning that the product was processed in a way that does not "fundamentally alter the product."

Advertising and marketing, however, does not require pre-market USDA approval, and Sanderson Farms—which sells chicken to supermarkets like Food 4 Less and Albertsons, as well as restaurants like Arby's, Olive Garden, Dairy Queen, and Chili's—has not only played up the notion that its chickens are "free of antibiotics before they leave the farm" in its television commercials, but has also mocked other companies which advertise their poultry as lacking added hormones or steroids on the grounds that it's "illegal" to give such products to chickens, though such substances were found in Sanderson Farms' chickens.

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.