Science Deniers of the Chicken Industry Get a Rude Awakening
This blog post is by Austin Wilson, Environmental Health Program Manager at As You Sow. It originally ran on the As You Sow website.
Although many corporations still pollute waterways and finance shadowy lobbying groups, it’s getting harder for companies to outright deny scientific consensus.
It’s only going to get harder for Sanderson Farms, making now the perfect time to face reality.
On Thursday, investors organized by the non-profit advocacy group As You Sow presented a proposal at the chicken company’s headquarters in Laurel, Mississippi. Against the opposition of executives, more than 43% of stockholders supported a proposal calling for the company to stop feeding human-class antibiotics to healthy chickens and prevent a global health crisis.
It’s a classic tale of a company ignoring scientists and sticking its head in the sand.
Sanderson Farms is the only Fortune 1000 company headquartered in Mississippi. The Sanderson family has run the company for 70 years, issuing public stock and becoming one of the Big Four that dominates the U.S. chicken market.
Sanderson raises 500 million chickens each year, so they should be worried that antibiotics are losing effectiveness. Antibiotics are the foundation of modern medicine, for humans and animals. It’s basic Darwinian science that the more often we use antibiotics to kill bacteria, the more bacteria learn to resist antibiotics, mutating into “superbugs” like MRSA. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria are projected to kill 10 million people per year worldwide by 2050.
The global medical community has called for using antibiotics only when absolutely necessary — especially the kind of antibiotics that are prescribed to humans. Right now, about 70% of the human-class antibiotics in the U.S. are fed to livestock. Most of the time, the animals aren’t even sick, but they’re fed antibiotics anyway to prevent sickness in cramped, unsanitary conditions.
Pretty much everyone agrees that this needs to change. It’s easier to make this change with chickens than cows or pigs, mainly because chickens have shorter lifespans and they are administered fewer types of human-class antibiotics. The big chicken brands (Perdue, Tyson and Pilgrim’s) have committed to stopping unnecessary antibiotic use. But one company stands alone.
Sanderson is betting their namesake farm on antibiotic-raised chicken. No third-party animal welfare certifications. No partnerships with NGOs.
That’s a “bold” move in the meat industry, which is under ever-increasing scrutiny for the sheer diversity of its environmental and social impacts: antibiotic misuse, animal mistreatment, water use and pollution (including massive “dead zones” in the Gulf of Mexico), climate change, and worker health and safety.
Sanderson’s COO Lampkin Butts has claimed: “There is not any credible science that leads us to believe we’re causing antibiotic resistance in humans.” Sanderson even spent millions of dollars on an advertising campaign that mocked its competitors for reducing antibiotic use, calling it a “gimmick” created by “marketing gurus” — until federal advertising regulators issued a warning.
That’s how a group of shareholders ended up presenting a proposal at the Sanderson Farms annual shareholder meeting and receiving support from 43.1% of the company’s stock. The proposal led by As You Sow was supported by the global charity Oxfam America. As You Sow has represented shareholders in the restaurant sector and worked with brands like KFC, Wendy’s and McDonald’s to address antibiotic use in the meat these companies buy.
A company can ignore scientists, but it can’t ignore its own shareholders and its customers — at least not if it wants to stick around for another 70 years.