4 Ways Tyson Foods Made 2020 Worse

December 21, 2020 | 2:40 pm
Karen Perry Stillerman
Deputy Director

Tyson Foods is the nation’s largest (and world’s second largest) meat and poultry producer. It operates 110 processing plants with 121,000 employees in the United States and boasted $42 billion in revenue in 2019, putting the publicly traded, Arkansas-based company at #79 in the Fortune 500. As it seeks to maintain meat industry dominance, Tyson is counting on many of us to put its products—which include Jimmy Dean breakfast sausage and Hillshire Farm hams, as well as the ubiquitous Tyson chicken—on our holiday tables.

But as you celebrate the season (safely, please!), consider the source of the protein on your plate and its costs beyond the checkout stand. Because the handful of multinational conglomerates that produce and process industrial pork, beef, and chicken in this country are profiting at the expense of workers, farmers, consumers, and the planet. And in an industry full of terrible actors this terrible year, Tyson is perhaps the most terrible.

1. Tyson has been the worst of the worst during the meat industry’s COVID-19 disaster.

In the early days of the pandemic, the meat industry was one of the first sectors to face economic consequences from the spread of the novel coronavirus. Their vast facilities dismember and pack staggering numbers of animals—Tyson’s largest pork plant, for example, processes 19,500 hogs per day. It’s a feat that relies on thousands of low-paid workers toiling shoulder to shoulder at physically demanding tasks, which is awful enough (as I’ll discuss below), but it also creates an ideal environment for viral transmission.

That’s exactly what happened. COVID-19 cases began appearing in meat and poultry plants in March; by late April, the CDC received reports of positive cases at 115 plants in 19 states, along with 20 COVID-19–related deaths. Tyson plants—including its largest pork plant in Waterloo, Iowa, and a beef plant in Dakota City, Nebraska—saw some of the worst outbreaks during the spring, yet the company pressed its workers to keep reporting for duty, while failing to provide the personal protective equipment and appropriate distancing needed to keep them safe. In late April, Tyson sought cover from the Trump administration—the company’s board chairman took out a full-page ad in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and its hometown paper, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, claiming that “the food supply chain is breaking.” Just days later, President Trump famously issued an executive order aimed at keeping meat and poultry plants open despite the risks and lack of protections. In signaling the move, Trump specifically referenced Tyson and its “liability problems.” In June, Tyson was among the recipients of corporate welfare as the Federal Reserve bought bonds from large companies to prop up the economy.

Throughout the crisis, Tyson has behaved badly in ways that endangered its workers. It has reportedly offered “incentives” to keep sick workers on the job, stonewalled local health departments over testing data, low-balled case reporting, and lied about the dangers of the virus to interpreters for its immigrant workers. In June, the company announced a major testing program but by July the company had stopped releasing the results.

In a particularly egregious incident, managers at Tyson’s Waterloo pork plant organized a betting pool around how many of the plant’s employees would contract the virus. Those managers have now been fired, but culpability for the company’s brazen negligence goes much deeper—all the way to the top of Tyson’s corporate structure. After all, in the words of one of my colleagues, the behavior of these managers, “while clearly sociopathic, is just a predictable outgrowth of their institutional context: absolute contempt for workers and criminal disregard for their safety.”

Neglect, malfeasance, and efforts by Tyson and other companies to evade regulation and liability has had horrifying consequences for workers. According to tracking by the Food & Environment Reporting Network (as of December 18, 2020), at least 51,519 workers across 565 meatpacking plants have tested positive for COVID-19. To date, 262 of those workers have died, and Tyson is facing multiple gross negligence lawsuits from victims’ families. Communities around these plants, many of them rural areas with inadequate access to healthcare, have also paid a price (just as my colleagues predicted back in July): a new study shows that as many as 8 percent of US COVID-19 cases and up to 4 percent of deaths in the early stage of the pandemic can be connected to outbreaks at meatpacking plants and subsequent spread in nearby communities.

As this FERN graphic illustrates, Tyson has dwarfed its rivals in terms of total COVID-19 cases at its facilities:

The Food & Environment Reporting Network has closely tracked the spread of COVID-19 at meatpacking plants, food processing facilities, and farms. FERN data, updated December 18, shows that Tyson Foods is responsible for the highest number of cases among workers, by far.

And because Tyson’s low-paid frontline workforce skews heavily toward immigrants and people of color, its actions have disproportionately harmed and put these populations at risk. The nonprofit Food Chain Workers Alliance and other allies in July filed an administrative civil rights complaint with the US Department of Agriculture alleging that Tyson and another meat processing corporation have engaged in racial discrimination prohibited by the Civil Rights Act through their workplace policies during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now, in a move best described as a day late and a dollar short, Tyson is reportedly “going on offense,” implementing new testing and tracking algorithm programs and hiring a chief medical officer.

Oh, and that whole supply-chain-breaking thing? Right. The same month Tyson published its sky-is-falling ad, the company exported 1,289 tons of pork to China, the most since January 2017. And by November, the company was back to beating its profit estimates.

But its reckless management of the COVID-19 pandemic is just one way that Tyson made 2020 worse. There’s more.

2. Tyson pushed rules that would harm poultry workers even after the pandemic.

Though Tyson is also in the pork and beef businesses, most consumers know it as a chicken company. It’s the nation’s largest producer of “broilers” (chickens raised for meat), slaughtering 38.3 million birds and producing 200.47 million pounds of ready-to-cook chicken every week. And that mind-boggling level of production comes at a high cost to the workers who kill, cut up, and package all those chickens.

Working in a Tyson plant is unimaginably difficult. It’s physically debilitating: Workers who hang live chickens on the conveyors for slaughter are pecked and clawed, while others are at constant risk of injury from knives and other sharp tool used in close confines. Workers in these plants are susceptible to repetitive stress injuries, exposed to cold temperatures and noxious odors and chemicals in the air, and denied bathroom breaks. Woman and immigrants, in particular, are harassed and threatened by supervisors. And the whole operation subjects workers to unrelenting psychological stress.

In recent years, Tyson has had one of the highest rates of severe injury among its workers—more than 68 workers per 100,000 sustained such an injury in 2015-16. One of the reasons for such injuries is the rapidity with which employees work, as birds whizz past on fast-moving automated conveyers. Workers report constant pressure to keep these automated lines moving. And still, Tyson and other poultry companies want those lines to move even faster.

Tyson is a member of a lobbying group called the National Chicken Council (NCC), which claims to represent companies that collectively produce 95 percent of US chicken. Through the NCC, Tyson and other companies have lobbied the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) since 2017 to allow plants to increase their line speeds an already-fast 140 birds per minute (bpm) to a dizzying 175 bpm. Although the USDA denied the NCC’s first petition to allow such an increase in all chicken processing plants, in 2018 the Trump administration began allowing individual plants to request waivers from existing line speed restrictions.

In April 2020, just as Tyson was setting off alarm bells about meat and poultry supply disruption due to the pandemic, Trump’s USDA approved a record number of line-speed waivers at poultry plants, including six waivers for Tyson facilities. Three of those Tyson plants have had documented COVID-19 outbreaks. A recent study shows a disturbing relationship between waivers granting increased line speeds and COVID transmission: The researchers’ analysis suggests that waivers predict increases in county-level case rates double those in counties with nonwaiver poultry plants.

Now, the Trump USDA is pushing to give Tyson and the NCC the ultimate gift: a new rule that would allow increased line speeds at chicken plants without the need for waivers. It’s a race against the clock at this point, with a new administration set to take office January 20, but they are trying.

Should that effort fail, public records show that Tyson and the NCC have also given Congress an earful about labor, line speed, food safety, and other issues this year. In the first three quarters of 2020, Tyson spent more than $900,000 lobbying Congress and the NCC spent an additional $360,000.

3. Tyson has colluded to cheat farmers and consumers.

US meatpacking is a highly consolidated industry, and Tyson is one of the top players in every major industry segment: It’s one of four companies that control more than 80 percent of beef processing, it’s one of three that control nearly two-thirds of pork processing, and it’s at the top of the list of five companies that control 60 percent of the chicken market. Such consolidation makes Tyson and its top competitors powerful—too powerful. Over the past year, we’ve learned that these companies have used their collective power to cheat both the farmers who raise the animals they slaughter and the customers who purchase their meat and poultry.

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, which has granted the company immunity.

Even before the price-fixing story emerged, it was clear that Tyson and its competitors were exploiting their chicken farmers, more than 97 percent of whom operate through contracts with the conglomerates. It’s a vertically integrated system in which Tyson and other companies own the birds and control (and frequently change) the terms under which they are raised. Contracts with chicken farmers are so lopsided that the Small Business Administration concluded in 2018 that chicken growers may not qualify for small business loans because they’re not actually independent businesses at all.

In the chicken business, legal action against Tyson keeps coming. Boston Market and three other restaurant chains sued Tyson and other companies for price-fixing in July. And just this month, Target and other retailers joined the original class action lawsuit, while famed chicken sandwich purveyor Chick-fil-A brought a new suit against the companies.

But it’s not just about chicken. 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.

4. Despite its commitments, Tyson has continued to trash our environment.

The business models and practices Big Meat use to crank out ever-increasing volumes of their products also pose a threat to our environment, and again Tyson is an industry “leader.” In 2016, an environmental organization named Tyson the #1 water polluter among agribusinesses, and another group has documented its supersized climate footprint. To feed the machine, Tyson and its livestock growers buy enormous quantities of industrially produced feed grains such as corn and soybean, which UCS and other groups have shown to have devastating environmental consequences.

There’s also an issue of wastewater pollution from Tyson processing plants. Earlier this year, for example, the state of Alabama sued Tyson for damages caused by a pair of 2019 releases from one of its facilities, which killed an estimated 175,000 fish.

And while Tyson made new sustainability commitments in 2018, watchdog group Mighty Earth alleges they haven’t followed through. In February, citizens in Tyson’s northwest Arkansas back yard rallied outside the company’s annual shareholder meeting for greater action, and investor groups are becoming more vocal about the industry’s environmental impact.

Leaving Tyson off the table?

So we’ve established that Tyson Foods is a terrible, awful, no-good company. But if you want to spend your food dollars in ways that are better for workers, farmers, and the planet, what to do? The vast majority of the industry is rotten—after all, Tyson couldn’t fix prices without co-conspirators—and a case could be made that any of those companies is also villainous. Juries have repeatedly found, for example, that Chinese-owned Smithfield Foods’ hog CAFOs have made life unbearable for neighbors in North Carolina (and a federal appeals court agreed last month). And there’s JBS, a Brazilian company you’ve probably never heard of that has nonetheless become the world’s largest meat producer, while taking US taxpayer bailouts and destroying the Amazon rainforest.

So simply saying no to Tyson in favor of their also-awful rivals probably isn’t a solution. Eating less—and better—meat is probably the best thing the average consumer can do. This excellent article explores the extent to which it’s possible to be a “conscious carnivore.” There are promising signs that the COVID-19 pandemic—which has led many consumers to look for better meat and poultry options from smaller-scale local farmers—may actually revive the system of small slaughterhouses those farmers rely on.

But changing consumer choices is just the tip of the iceberg.  It will take public policies on a large scale to break the power of Tyson and Big Meat once and for all. That includes serious antitrust policies that would level the playing field for smaller producers and processors. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) has introduced legislation that would begin to do that. And while the Obama administration’s USDA was widely criticized for failing to enforce anticompetitive rules and promote deconsolidation in our food system, presumptive agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack has another chance at that in his second act at the USDA.

So while we may choose to leave Tyson off the table this holiday, here’s hoping that in 2021, policymakers find the resolve to take on the company and the industry, for the good of workers, farmers, and our environment.