The Organic Consumers Association has sued Smithfield Foods Inc. in Superior Court for the District of Columbia over allegedly “deceptive food safety marketing representations about pork products.

Smithfield, VA-based Smithfield Foods is accused of making marketing and advertising representations to convey to consumers, including consumers in the District of Columbia, that Smithfield brand pork products are the “safest” possible U.S. pork products.

Smithfield is the world’s largest pork producer, which markets under its own and other brand names. In the United States, Smithfield is under the regulation of USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS).

“In reality,” according to the complaint filed by the Organic Consumers Association (OCA), “Smithfield employs production practices that result in less-safe conditions, effects, and products, including the routine preventative use of medically important antibiotics, crowded conditions, the use of potentially carcinogenic drugs, and rapid slaughter methods.”

“Furthermore,” it continues, “Smithfield’s products are commonly contaminated with dangerous pathogens to a degree that makes them far less than the ‘safest’ possible U.S. born and bred products. The USDA frequently notifies Smithfield that pork processed product in its slaughter plants is more likely to be contaminated with Salmonella that similar products in slaughter plants of the same size.”

The complaint alleges that on “numerous occasions,” USDA testing of Smithfield pork has detected pathogens that are “commonly associated with human illness” and resistant to antibiotics. It says many disease strains detected in Smithfield products have been found resistant to antibiotics that are designated as “highly important” or even “critically important” for human health.

The OCA contends Smithfield’s marketing and advertising statements about setting the industry standard for producing the “safest” pork products are “false and misleading.”

Smithfield Foods Inc. has yet to respond to the action filed on May 20 under the D.C. Consumer Protection Procedures Act (CPPA), the equivalent to a filing in a state court.

The CPPA permits nonprofit organizations to bring actions on behalf of their members or in the public interest. The OCA is based in Finland, MN.

The company’s response to the question “Why Smithfield Pork?” on its website is cited by OCA as “false and misleading.” Here is that response:

“We are committed to setting the industry standard for providing our customers with the highest quality and safest U.S. born and bred products possible. And USDA’s certification of our management practices confirms that we are living up to our commitments.”

The OCA says that “across its advertising,” Smithfield makes representations that its food safety practices are “superlative,” leading consumers to believe that it exceeds industry standards for food safety and that its products would not be contaminated with dangerous pathogens.

“The current heightened consumer concern about safety in the meat industry is all the more reason to hold Smithfield accountable for false safety claims, OCA’s Ronnie Cummins said in a statement separate from the complaint.

Cummins said USDA “has notified Smithfield slaughter plants on multiple occasions that their pork was more likely to be contaminated with Salmonella than similar products in slaughter plants of the same size.

“Failure to report these notifications to consumers is one thing,” Cummins added. “But claiming that its products are the ‘safest’ possible pork products in the U.S. is a blatant misrepresentation of the brand’s actual safety record.”

The complaint suggests that Smithfield is using its social media accounts, including YouTube to make food safety claims. Misrepresentation of material facts is a cause of action in the  D.C. Consumer Protection Procedures Act.

The OCA also charges Smithfield with using “especially hazardous production practices” and routinely using “antibiotics for disease prevention in healthy animals.”

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as cited in the complaint, there are more than 2.8 million antibiotic-resistant infections in the United States each year, resulting in 35,000 deaths.

In the lawsuit, OCA wants a trial by jury in its quest for a judgment that Smithfield is violating the CPPA. The OCA also wants to enjoin Smithfield from making any further false claims. It also wants its costs, including reasonable attorney’s fees, paid by the pork producing company.

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