Tyson Foods Inc. has settled a multimillion-dollar lawsuit filed by two competitors, including Maryland's Perdue Farms, alleging that the Arkansas company used deceptive marketing to lie about its antibiotics use in poultry. But now the company faces lawsuits from consumers.
Four cases claiming to represent thousands of people have been filed this month in federal courts across the country, including two in Baltimore since Friday. Each seeks class action status, and each alleges that Tyson violated state consumer protection acts.
They accuse the company of falsely claiming that its chickens are free of certain antibiotics. Drugging the animals that people eat has become a hot-button issue for health professionals concerned that it may lead to the development of medication-resistant bacteria.
"We firmly believe we have acted responsibly in the way we have labeled and marketed our products and will defend ourselves against these lawsuits," Tyson spokesman Gary Mickelson said yesterday.
At issue is a now-abandoned advertising campaign in which Tyson claimed its chickens were raised without antibiotics. The assertion was sanctioned by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which later rescinded its approval, instead allowing Tyson to say its poultry was raised without antibiotics "that impact antibiotic resistance in humans."
The USDA has since ordered Tyson to remove that labeling as well, giving the company a June 18 deadline, which has now been extended to July 9, according to Mickelson. Tyson had volunteered to change its labeling, but sued the USDA over the quick deadline.
Tyson treats its chickens with compounds called antibiotic ionophores to prevent intestinal illness; its compounds are not used in human medication. But the company also injects chicken eggs with a vaccine containing gentamicin, which is used in human therapies. The company argues that injecting the eggs before they hatch means it is free to claim the birds aren't "raised" - as in brought up - with such drugs.
Earlier this year, Salisbury's Perdue Farms and Sanderson Farms of Mississippi sued Tyson in Baltimore federal court over the antibiotics claims, which the Tyson competitors say falsely implies their birds are less healthy to eat. Both companies also treat their chickens with ionophores. Sanderson says it lost a $4 million account to Tyson because of the company's ad campaign, while Perdue says it lost about $10 million in revenue since last year. The plaintiffs wanted Tyson to stop its marketing and return any gains.
After a hearing in Baltimore in April, U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett ordered Tyson to stop its advertising campaign.
The Daily Record reported yesterday that the lawsuit had been settled, which was confirmed by Perdue attorney Randall K. Miller. The terms are confidential, he said in an e-mail to The Sun. Judge Bennett signed an order dismissing the case Monday.
That same day, attorneys for Norman and Mary Cutsail of Baltimore filed a lawsuit against Tyson on their behalf.
"Tyson's misrepresentations allow it to overcharge consumers for its chicken and chicken products. Tyson saw substantial increase in volume at the artificially elevated price," court documents filed in Baltimore federal court claim.