Non-profit groups allege the company "doses" chickens with synthetic drugs.
LAUREL, Miss. – Poultry processor Sanderson Farms Inc. strongly denied claims made in a federal lawsuit filed against the company alleging synthetic drugs and other chemicals were administered to chickens.

In a lawsuit filed in the District Court for the Northern District of California, the Organic Consumers Association (OCA), Friends of the Earth (FoE) and Center for Food Safety (CFS) allege that Laurel, Mississippi-based Sanderson Farms’ marketing misleads consumers to believe the company’s chicken is “100% Natural” when the meat contains residues of chemicals and synthetic drugs.

The groups base their claims on tests conducted by the National Residue Program of the US Dept. of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS).

In a statement, Sanderson Farms said the company made “… a cursory review of the complaint…” filed on June 22. 

“While Sanderson Farms generally does not comment on pending litigation, we can unequivocally state that Sanderson Farms does not administer the antibiotics, other chemicals and pesticides, or “other pharmaceuticals” listed in the complaint with one exception,” the company said. “To suggest otherwise is irresponsible. Our veterinarians do from time to time prescribe penicillin in FDA approved doses to treat sick flocks, and our withdrawal times far exceed FDA guidelines out of an abundance of caution.  Most all of the drugs and chemicals cited in the complaint are not approved for use in broilers, and some would be lethal to chickens.”

Court documents state that FSIS tests revealed 49 instances in which samples of Sanderson Farms’ products tested positive for residues of synthetic drugs. Among FSIS’s findings:

  • Eleven instances of antibiotics for human use, including chloramphenical, which is prohibited for use in food animals.
  • Positive results for ketamine, a drug with hallucinogenic effects, using testing methods normally applied to beef and pork. Valid testing methods have not been developed for ketamine in poultry, because ketamine is not approved for use in poultry.
  • Ketoprofren, an anti-inflammatory drug
  • Prednisone, a steroid
  • Reports of two growth hormones: melengesterol acetate and a beta agonist ractopamine. Both are banned in chicken production.
  • Six instances of residues of amoxicillin, a medically important antibiotic for human use and one that is not approved for use in poultry. Deserves further investigation because, similar to ketamine, valid testing methods have been developed only for beef.
  • Three instances of penicillin residue at up to 0.285 ppb, for which the residue regulatory limit is zero.
  • Positive test results for the pesticides abamectin and Emamectin, using testing methods that apply to pork.


“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,’” Ronnie Cummins, international director at OCA, said in a statement. “Sanderson’s advertising claims are egregiously misleading to consumers, and unfair to competitors. The organic and free-range poultry sector would be growing much more rapidly if consumers knew the truth about Sanderson’s products and false advertising.”

Sanderson Farms has stood by its use of antibiotics to treat sick flocks while other companies such as Tyson Foods Inc., Perdue Farms Inc. and Butterball LLC have launched products sourced from chickens raised without antibiotics or made “no antibiotics ever” pledges.

“We will vigorously defend this lawsuit, and will take specific steps to make sure our position is clear,” Sanderson Farms said. “We will also continue our advertising campaign to educate consumers on our position regarding the judicious use of FDA approved medicines to treat sick chickens and to prevent disease in our flocks.  Such use is consistent with our animal welfare obligations to the animals under our care, our environmental sustainability efforts and our obligations regarding food safety.”