SAN FRANCISCO – A federal judge denied a motion to dismiss a lawsuit accusing Sanderson Farms of using false and misleading advertising to market the production claims of the company’s chickens.

In 2017, Center for Food Safety and Friends of Earth sued Sanderson in US District Court for the Northern District of California, alleging the company’s advertisements stating its chicken products are “100% Natural” are false and misleading. The court previously dismissed the lawsuit twice, but the third attempt was successful.

“After years of misleading the public and denying the public health risks associated with overuse of antibiotics in animal production, we welcome the judges’ decision to allow our lawsuit against Sanderson Farms to continue,” said Kari Hamerschlag, deputy director of Food and Agriculture at Friends of the Earth.

At the time the original lawsuit was filed, Sanderson said in a statement “…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. “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.”

Sanderson argued that the plaintiffs allegations were insufficient to support the litigation, and that the plaintiffs cannot challenge the company’s “100% Natural” slogan without considering the full context of an advertisement in which the slogan is used.

But US District Court Judge Richard Seeborg disagreed, writing “…Review, to the contrary, is limited to the four corners of a specific webpage at issue. No authority suggests a reasonable consumer is expected to search a company’s entire website (or certainly all of a company’s statements across all forms of advertisements) to find all possible disclaimers. This is not akin to disclaimers being adjacent to the challenged statements.

“Although the reasonable consumer standard demands that a plaintiff must show “more than a mere possibility” that a challenged advertisement might conceivably mislead a few does not ask they be private investigators as defendant appears to suggest.”

Writing about Sanderson’s “Bob and Dale” commercials, Seeborg wrote: “By criticizing its competitor’s advertising as misleading to consumers, Sanderson’s commercial is likely to mislead reasonable consumers into believing that Sanderson products were no different than its competitors who never used antibiotics in their chicken production. Plaintiffs have sufficiently alleged Sanderson’s actions are likely to mislead reasonable consumers to believe Sanderson’s products are the same as competitors that never administer antibiotics during their production, for which a reasonable consumer is willing to pay a premium.”

The ruling comes after Sanderson it will discontinue by March 1 the use of antibiotics considered medically important for humans for disease prevention in its live poultry operations. The decision was based on the findings of an advisory board commissioned by Sanderson to examine and report on the company’s use of antibiotics in poultry production.

The advisory board concluded that a production system “…where non-medically important antibiotics… can be used for prevention, and medically important antibiotics can be used for treatment and control of disease, could represent a responsible compromise to better preserve efficacy of antibiotics important for human health.”

Center for Food Safety applauded the announcement, and the District Court’s ruling that will allow the lawsuit against Sanderson to proceed.

“We are pleased that this lawsuit can now move forward and believe that Sanderson Farms is taking a good first step toward eliminating the use of medically important antibiotic use in livestock production,” said Rebecca Spector, West Coast director at Center for Food Safety. “We hope Sanderson will utilize a third-party certifier to verify these production practices so that consumers can be assured that these chickens were raised without routine use of antibiotics.”