More consistency and clarity is needed on the USDA's labeling and advertising rules on meat and livestock-raising claims, Tyson Foods has said as it announced the withdrawal of its 'raised without antibiotics' chicken label.
Tyson's label, which was initially launched in May 2007 with the wording 'raised without antibiotic', has been the subject of considerable regulatory and legal to-ing and fro-ing.
The company claims its received approval for the label from the FDA in May 2007, but had to change it in the fall as USDA officials advised it that some organizations narrowly classify ionophores, the antimicrobials used in Tyson chicken feed to help prevent an intestinal colonization by coccidia, as antibiotics - even though they are not used in human medicine.
Tyson therefore qualified the claim to read 'chicken raised without antibiotics that impact antiobiotic resistance in humans'.
Now, however, the USDA has been notified of a voluntary withdrawal of Tyson's amended label, until such time as new rules or protocols are adopted by the USDA.
"In order to preserve the integrity of our label and our reputation as a premier company in the food industry, we believe their needs to be more specific labeling and advertising protocols developed to ensure the rules are clear and the application of the rules is equitable," said Dave Hogberg, senior VP of consumer products at Tyson.
Hogburg and colleagues are asking the USDA to conduct public hearings on the subject, or establish a rule making process.
Only if and when new rule and protocols are developed as a result of such procedures will Tyson make antibiotic claims in the future, it says.
A spokesperson for the USDA was not immediately available for comment on how the department may respond to Tyson's request.
Tyson's labels and advertising, in their various incarnations, have been the subject of a law suit by two competitors, a petition to the USDA by three competitors, and a "purported class action lawsuit allegedly on behalf of consumers".
Tyson executives had not given any indication of a link between any of the legal action, and its voluntary decision over the labeling of its products.
But in early May a federal appeals judge in Richmond, Virginia gave the poultry giant has 14 days - until 15 May - to remove point-of-purchase advertising that claims its products are raised without antibiotics.
The ruling followed a preliminary injunction issued the month before by Baltimore's US District Court that included an order for the company to immediately cease advertising its chicken as raised without antibiotics that impact antibiotic resistance in humans, but was subsequently referred to appeal by Tyson.
The action was sparked off by rival poultry processing companies Perdue Farms of Maryland and Sanderson Farms of Mississippi, who argued that none of the companies use those types of antiobiotics that influence human antibiotic resistance in their products.
All three companies, meanwhile, use ionophores in their chicken feed.
Sanderson said it lost $4 million in sales since last year as a result of the Tyson campaign, while Perdue contended it lost $10 million.
Tyson was reported to be evaluating its legal options following the appeals ruling.
Tyson has stressed that the label change does not indicate any change in the treatment of its chickens.
The no-antibiotic labels will be phased out, it said, and the new labels put on products straight away.
However it may be some months before all Tyson's labels are without the claims, since they appear on the packs of some frozen inventory that is not yet at retail.