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Lawsuit: Ketamine, Other Drug Residue Found in Popular Chicken Brand

Chris Roberts

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The old adage: you are what you eat. Guess what? If you eat Sanderson Farms chicken, a popular chicken brand throughout most of the South, you are a chicken lost deep, deep in a ketamine hole.

Sanderson Farms sells packaged chicken, of the kind found in every supermarket in America, that it advertises as “100% natural.” According to a lawsuit filed against the company by a consumer-advocacy group on June 22, Sanderson’s natural chicken contains traces of pesticides, steroids, growth hormones, antibiotics not approved for use in poultry—and ketamine, Special-K, the powerful sedative that’s also a popular drug on the party circuit, and also—in case it was unclear—not a thing for chicken.

Outfits like the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) have long been at odds with food producers who use the “natural” label.

“Natural” is a very nice-sounding, organic-like adjective… which means, legally, absolutely nothing (unlike the adjective “organic,” which is a proprietary term handed out only by the US Department of Agriculture). As it happens, it was the USDA that discovered synthetic drugs in Sanderson chicken.

The OCA obtained the information about Sanderson’s dirty chicken through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.

Sanderson Farms chicken is found throughout the Southeast, where, according to the company’s website, the company “process[es] more than 10.6 million chickens per week” at processing plants in Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, North Carolina and Texas.

Over a year-long period from November 2015 to November 2016, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service conducted 69 inspections of Sanderson processing plants. In 33 percent of those visits, according to Bloomberg, inspectors discovered “unnatural” residue, including the ketamine and exotic antibiotics including chloramphenicol—which is not approved for use in food that will eventually be fed to humans, because it causes “bone marrow suppression.”

Other neat finds in Sanderson chicken included an opiate overdose reversal drug and synthetic hormones, also not approved for use in poultry—natural or otherwise.

It should not shock you that Sanderson Farms is a big proponent of using antibiotics in food products, a practice that critics say leads to the development of antibiotic-resistant “superbugs” (and also leads to Hollywood plot lines like Contagion).

In response to a query from Bloomberg, Sanderson Farms denied everything and vowed to fight the lawsuit—and continue marketing its raver chicken as “natural.”

Sanderson Farms does not administer the antibiotics, other chemicals and pesticides, or ‘other pharmaceuticals’ listed in the complaint with one exception,” the company said in an emailed statement. “Our veterinarians do from time to time prescribe penicillin in FDA approved doses to treat sick flocks.”

That may not matter.

At the heart of OCA’s lawsuit against Sanderson Farms is not the act of sending dosed-out chicken to slaughter and to market—it’s lying about the practice in advertising.

OCA points to two commercials, both of which involve Sanderson spokesmen claiming, outright, that chickens, including the company’s, are “free of antibiotics before they leave the farm” and that it’s “illegal to give chickens added hormones or steroids.” The ads for Sanderson’s “natural” chicken are barely-veiled swipes at other chicken producers who sell their birds under labels like “hormone-free” in order to attract conscientious consumers.

As the testing shows, however, Sanderson’s claims of clean product aren’t always accurate.

As Bloomberg notes, other food companies have also come under fire from advocacy groups for freewheeling, licentious use of the word “natural.” Another lawsuit  has been filed against cereal giant General Mills, which was found to use the chemical glyphosate—recently found by California to cause cancer—in its granola bars marketed as “natural.”

But as attorneys told Bloomberg, the case may hinge on whether consumers care about any of the above.

Do chicken buyers adjust their buying habits based on natural claims, or would they always buy a science experiment if it were 30 cents cheaper per pound than chicken that would fail a drugged-driving test?

The answer is probably too terrible to ponder. Pass the ketamine, please.

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