The U.S. Department of Agriculture told Tyson Foods the department made a mistake and that the second-largest U.S. chicken producer could no longer label products as "raised without antibiotics," the Wall Street Journal reported on Monday.
Tyson has spent tens of millions of dollars since June on an advertising and labeling campaign and is now scrambling to salvage the label, the Journal reported in an article published online.
The decision, disclosed in a previously nonpublic letter dated Nov. 6, comes after Tyson received USDA approval in May to label products as "raised without antibiotics" -- a coup as consumers are increasingly concerned about the use of antibiotics in raising animals.
Now the USDA says it made a mistake in approving the label, the Journal said.
Daniel Engeljohn, an official at the USDA office that oversees labeling decisions, told the newspaper the department was trying to ensure labels are truthful and not misleading.
"Our consistent position is if you're going to make a raised-without-antibiotics claim that there will be no antibiotics that were included in the feed during the life of the animal," the Journal quoted him as saying.
"We stand by the truthfulness of our product labels and remain fully committed to our Raised Without Antibiotics chick program," Tyson said in a statement sent to Reuters. "We've been in discussion with USDA officials on the best way to resolve this matter and have submitted modified labeling we hope is approved soon."
Tyson said the additional wording states no ingredients have been used that could create antibiotic resistance in humans.
At issue is a type of animal medication called ionophores, which are commonly added to poultry feed to help prevent coccidiosis, an intestinal illness in chickens. Tyson said it does not believe than ionophores are antibiotics and said the U.S. Food and Drug Administration excludes ionophores from its list of animal drugs deemed to be antibiotics.
"Ionophores are not used in human medicine and do not contribute to the development of antibiotic resistance to important human drugs," Tyson said. "They remain in the intestinal tract of the animal and do not carry over into the meat consumed by humans."