While many major chicken companies, restaurant chains and food service providers are switching to chickens raised without antibiotics important for human medicine, Sanderson Farms seems to be moving in the opposite direction. Last summer, Sanderson Farms launched an outrageous advertising campaign claiming that raising chickens without using these drugs is only a marketing gimmick—a blatant and unacceptable deception. Leading health and medical organizations, and a vast scientific literature, have warned that livestock antibiotic use is indeed contributing to the problem of antibiotic resistance. Is Sanderson Farms any different? Our analysis of FDA’s testing data for retail chicken, presented below, suggests otherwise: Like most every other major chicken company, Sanderson Farms is spreading antibiotic resistant bacteria on the meat it sells.
The World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Infectious Disease Society of America, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the European Medicines Agency & European Food Safety Agency and many other organizations and scientists around the world have called for reducing livestock use of antibiotics. That’s because when chicken and livestock producers use antibiotics repeatedly to raise animals, some bacteria become drug resistant, thrive, and spread to threaten humans. If we keep over-using these drugs to raise food animals, we weaken their potency for treating human disease.
This concern has propelled many major food companies to change their antibiotic use policies to raise animals without using antibiotics important for human medicine except to treat sick animals. Companies fighting back against superbugs include: Panera Bread, Chipotle, Perdue, Tyson, McDonalds, Wendy’s, Compass USA, Subway, Taco Bell, and others.
Meanwhile, Sanderson Farms has dug in on defending its antibiotic use. In August, the company’s President told the New York Times that he sees no credible science linking his company’s drug use and the threat of antibiotic resistance in humans; he reportedly made the same astonishing claim to investors again this month. The company admits to using antibiotics that are deemed “highly important” to human medicine. It also fought back against a recent shareholder resolution calling for antibiotic stewardship (supported by 30% of the vote—a big number for social change resolutions).
Sanderson Farms’ advertising campaign is particularly disturbing. It’s clearly aimed at confusing consumers about the antibiotic resistance threat. Print and TV ads falsely suggest that all the concern about antibiotics is related to antibiotic residues in meat, which the ads assert are not a significant health threat, trying to divert the conversation from the grave and proven threat caused by drug-resistant bacterial contamination in food and the environment (which we and other advocates have actually focused on).
Talk about fooling consumers.
Antibiotic residues in meat is not the issue here. The real problem that has alarmed health experts around the globe is the proliferation of antibiotic resistant bacteria. Routine antibiotic use breeds antibiotic resistant bacteria that can leave the farm on the chicken manure (that is typically trucked away and applied to cropland), on colonized workers, on vented air blasted out of poultry houses or in the soil or water, and on the meat itself. Bacteria escaping via these pathways spread in our communities and environment, and can even share the genetic traits which confer antibiotic resistance with other bacteria, further spreading antibiotic resistance.
Sanderson Farms is most certainly a part of this problem. The Food and Drug Administration tests raw chicken sold in retail stores for the presence of drug resistant bacteria and routinely finds multi-drug resistant E. coli on uncooked chicken, including on chicken raised, processed, and packaged under Sanderson Farms’ control. Below, we graph FDA’s testing results for multidrug resistant E. coli found on retail chicken and Sanderson Farms chicken from 2002 to 2014. If we zoom in on the last seven years, where trends appear stable, the graph shows that E coli isolated from Sanderson Farms chicken had levels of multidrug resistance that were similar to E. coli from all retail chicken tested. While FDA’s limited sample size makes it impossible to estimate national resistance rates with statistical confidence, it does provide evidence that Sanderson Farms chicken is indeed part of the problem and is contributing to the spread of antibiotic resistance (in addition to spreading E. coli, which can be harmful).
Fortunately, many of the other major poultry producers are scrambling to phase out antibiotic use. Sanderson Farms seems to be moving in the opposite direction by refusing to adopt antibiotic phase-out goals and instead trying to mislead consumers about the real cause of the problem.
 We use the same calculations as FDA’s latest trend analysis for Salmonella on retail chicken. FDA also detects drug resistant Salmonella and Campylobacter on retail chicken, including Sanderson Farms chicken, but FDA’s sample size for those bacteria for individual chicken companies were too small to analyze meaningfully. For E. coli, we only show data points for Sanderson Farms when at least 10 E. coli isolates were found on their tested chicken. Due to limited sampling by FDA, these rates of multidrug resistant E. coli are not indicative of nationwide resistance trends in bacteria associated either with the entire chicken supply or that of Sanderson Farms.