The case seems straightforward enough. Tyson Foods petitions USDA to use the words "Raised Without Antibiotics" on the labels of its chicken products, and the department gives a go-ahead. Then some naysayers complain that such a label is misleading, since a category of antibiotics called ionophores are present in the chicken feed Tyson specifies and uses for its so-called antibiotic-free chicken. USDA goes back to Tyson to say it had approved the previous label too quickly. The company and the government negotiate a deal, and new wording is approved: "Chicken Raised Without Antibiotics that impact antibiotic resistance in humans."
Yet a scent of mystery hovers in the air. The naysayers, gathered and organized as the Truthful Labeling Coalition and claiming a membership of "thousands of grassroots citizens in all 50 states," use a Washington, D.C., address but don’t have a phone number; email sent to the TLC address bounces back. However, the TLC did issue a statement back in December congratulating Perdue Farms on becoming a member. The huge poultry processor joins other "grassroots citizens" in the TLC such as Foster Farms, Gold'n Plump Poultry and Sanderson Farms.
For its part, Tyson Foods feels no need to add to comments already made in a release announcing the new agreement with USDA. Carol Tucker Foreman, the consumer advocate, former assistant secretary of agriculture, and frequent thorn in the side of the mainstream industry, actually endorsed the agreement -- but she’s not returning phone calls either.
And the third leg on this wobbly beast, USDA, evidently isn’t positive what’s an antibiotic and what isn’t.
To a degree, the matter is tangled politically in USDA’s consideration of a comprehensive new definition of the word "natural" for beef. Up to now, "natural" has meant, in USDA labeling regulations, "minimally processed," a definition that bears little, if any, resemblance to the word’s use by consumers and in food-product marketing campaigns. The Department will accept comments until Jan. 28 on its new proposal to allow use of "natural" to describe certain livestock-production protocols.