Tyson Foods Wants to Be Our Valentine. Thanks, But No Thanks.


Karen Perry Stillerman, Union of Concerned Scientists

February 12, 2021


In the latest weird 2021 moment,* meat and poultry giant Tyson Foods is running a marketing campaign involving chicken nuggets arranged into freakish bouquets for Valentine’s Day. Here at the Union of Concerned Scientists, we have some thoughts about Tyson’s Valentine offering to the nation. Here are the nugget-by-nugget deets:


·         Tyson plants have spurred rural COVID hotspots – Early in the coronavirus pandemic, outbreaks were largely confined to urban areas on the coasts, but by April 2020, small towns and rural communities in the middle of country began to be hit hard. Giant meat and poultry processing facilities—which employ thousands of low-paid workers toiling in crowded and dangerous conditions—were a major factor. And so we saw outbreaks in communities around Tyson plants in Texas, Iowa, Missouri, and elsewhere. As of February 11, the Food and Environment Reporting Network (FERN) had tracked more than 12,500 COVID-19 cases and 39 deaths among workers at Tyson plants. A recent UCS analysis showed that there is the potential for still more illness and death in and around plants operated by Tyson and its competitors.


·         Risking workers’ safety is Tyson’s business model – As I wrote last December, working in a Tyson plant is unimaginably difficult, both physically and psychologically. Workers are expendable in the drive for efficiency, with many at near-constant risk of being cut, pecked, or clawed; susceptible to repetitive stress injuries; exposed to cold temperatures and noxious odors and chemicals; and even denied bathroom breaks. In recent years, Tyson has ranked near the top of the nation’s employers for its high rates of severe worker injuries. Tyson’s poultry workers, in particular, have some of the most dangerous jobs in America—that was true before the pandemic, and it will be true after the pandemic if the company and its regulators don’t take action.


·         Tyson colludes to cheat its chicken farmers – Tyson produces chicken through a vertically integrated system in which it owns the feed mills, slaughterhouses, trucking lines, hatcheries, and the birds themselves, which farmers (who have been compared to sharecroppers) merely raise to slaughter age under contracts. A 2019 investigation by The Guardian and FERN posed the question, “Is the US chicken industry cheating its farmers?” and the answer was pretty clearly yes. The reporting exposed how Tyson and its largest competitors—which combine to control 60 percent of the US chicken market—have used consolidation and collusion to keep farmers’ pay low and chicken prices high. One Kentucky-based contract farmer suing Tyson for unfair practices describes the company’s exploitative system for recruiting and paying him and 3,700 other contract farmers in this fascinating and outrageous read.


·         Tyson puts pig poop (and more) in our water – Unlike its vertically integrated chicken production, Tyson doesn’t own hogs from birth to slaughter—rather, the company buys hogs from some 2,000 growers to feed its six pork processing plants. But Tyson is indirectly responsible for what happens to the waste (read: manure) produced by the tens of thousands of hogs slaughtered at those plants every day. Tyson-bound pigs are typically raised in CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations), many of them in Iowa, a state home to more pigs than people. That’s a lot of manure, and much of it flows into the state’s rivers and leaches into its groundwater, as a recent UCS report showed. In addition, slaughterhouses often discharge wastewater containing blood, fat, fecal matter, urine, and chemicals directly into waterways, sometimes exceeding permitted limits. A report from the Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice examined 98 such facilities and found that between 2016 and 2018, Tyson owned the most plants (26) with discharge violations. (And this behavior goes back many years.)


·         Gulf of Mexico dead zone, powered by Tyson – My colleagues and I have written about this unnatural annual phenomenon, in which large swaths of coastal waters in the Gulf are rendered uninhabitable for marine life because of nutrients in farm runoff carried down the Mississippi River. As above, that includes massive amounts of livestock manure. But it also includes enormous quantities of nitrogen fertilizer—by our recent estimate, 31 million tons worth since 1990—applied to corn and other crops that end up as feed for cattle, hogs, and poultry. In 2017, environmental group Mighty Earth mapped the supply chains of the top meat and feed producers to identify the companies most responsible for Gulf-bound nutrient pollution, and you’ll never guess which company led the pack. (Yep, it was Tyson.)


·         Tyson has engaged in price-fixing – Early allegations of meat industry price fixing arose in 2016 with a class-action lawsuit accusing Tyson and other chicken producers of conspiring to raise broiler chicken prices. The suit alleged that the companies have used a data company to quietly share detailed financial information with each other for decades. Last year, the US Department of Justice intervened in that suit and launched a criminal investigation that, by October 2020, had led to indictments of 10 poultry industry executives, including a former Tyson exec. Since June, Tyson has been cooperating with the DOJ, and just last month it agreed to settle the suit for $221.5 million. But don’t look now…in May, attorneys general for 11 states urged the Justice Department to pursue a federal investigation into market concentration and price fixing in the beef industry as well.  DOJ launched such an investigation in June, issuing subpoenas to Tyson and three other companies.


·         So many lawsuits – Meanwhile, rather than showing any remorse for all the damage they’ve done, Tyson is fighting culpability on nearly every front. The company recently agreed to settle the chicken price-fixing suit—without admitting wrongdoing, of course. But Tyson continues to battle multiple wrongful death lawsuits filed by families of workers who died of COVID-19, and has even tried arguing the former President Trump’s executive order on meat production insulates them from any COVID-related liability. There’s also a newly filed lawsuit alleging that Tyson defrauded its shareholders with misleading disclosures regarding the spread of the coronavirus in its facilities.


Tyson needs to clean up its act, now ...


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