When is an antibiotic not an “antibiotic”? As far as consumers should be concerned an antibiotic used in livestock production is a compound with the capability of either stimulating transmissible drug resistance in pathogens or being present as a residue in meat, eggs or milk. The criterion relates strictly to the potential to impact human health.

The current issue arises over the back flip by the USDA over labeling used by Tyson Foods in offering a range of products produced without antibiotic feed additives. In May this year, Tyson received approval from the USDA to use the wording “Raised Without Antibiotics”. This formed the basis of a promotional campaign for broilers grown out according to a specific production program deleting antibiotic growth promoters in feed. In an inexplicable reverse, USDA advised Tyson Foods to discontinue the claim in September since the Company uses ionophore anticoccidials in diets fed to birds marketed under the label claim. Tyson was given the options of removing the “Raised Without Antibiotics” notation, exclude ionophores from diets or submit a new application for a modified label.

The first of the two issues of concern relates to whether ionophores are in fact “antibiotics” While a detailed discourse on pharmacology or microbiology is inappropriate to this report, it is accepted that some ionophores demonstrate a low level of antibacterial activity against a narrow range of organisms under controlled laboratory conditions. Does the routine and widespread use of these anticoccidial compounds rise to the level of deceptive labeling? Despite a narrow definition of the descriptor “Antibiotic”, ionophores should not be regarded as analogous to compounds with a primary activity against either Gram positive or Gram negative bacteria in the intestinal tract of poultry. There is no demonstrated or recognized human health implication from ionophores either from residues or the development of resistance to drugs used to treat infections of humans or companion and food animals. This fact was emphasized by a spokesperson for the Food and Environment Program of the Union of Concerned Scientists as cited in a November 20th press release by Tyson Foods.

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The second issue concerns the actions of USDA authorities administering labeling.

The claim was approved in May and was acceptable at this time, apparently given the fair and forthright admission by Tyson Foods that ionophores were incorporated in some diets fed to broilers in consistency with FDA rules. Either the USDA accepted then that ionophores were not “antibiotics” in the context of labeling or the issue was not considered due to unfamiliarity with scientific literature. If the former is the case the USDA should have stood firm against pressure from parties opposed to the label to rescind the approval and should not have issued the September directive. If the second situation prevailed there is cause to reflect on the competency of those responsible. If a strictly narrow definition of “antibiotics” was considered in May, Tyson Foods should have been counseled to modify the wording accordingly. A simple statement could have been crafted to suit the interests of consumers and prevent the confusion resulting from the reversal by the USDA.

In reviewing label claims the USDA should scrutinize blatantly misleading claims relating to “Raised without Hormones/Stimulants/ Steroids/Pesticides” which are encountered. These products usually from small-scale and boutique processors create the incorrect impression that other broiler products do contain banned or undesirable contaminants and adulterants. Label claims are an important part of the purchase decision and it behooves the USDA to be scientifically accurate and fair in their approvals and market surveillance. The value of brands and the support of price differentials rest on accurate and appropriate wording. It is hoped for the wellbeing of the Industry that this issue will be resolved expeditiously and that a repetition will be avoided.