Tyson Foods, the nation’s largest meat and poultry company, just can’t stop pretending to be something it’s not. Pretending, for example, to be a company that is concerned about its workers. Last weekend, a news report from Ohio documented a seven-alarm emergency at a Tyson processing plant where 13,000 pounds of toxic ammonia vapor had leaked. It was another potentially harmful exposure for plant workers who already perform some of the nation’s most dangerous jobs every day, but Tyson’s statement to the press was reflexive:
“The safety of our team members is always our top priority, so we immediately evacuated the plant and there were no injuries.”
Read that first part again:
The safety of our team members is always our top priority…
Disguising the facts on worker safety
Like a cheap Halloween costume, declarations of concern about its workers (Tyson calls them team members or even family), can’t hide what the company really is. There are just too many well-documented facts about its safety record. For example:
Tyson has had one of the nation’s highest rates of severe worker injuries, ranking fourth among companies across all industries, according to a 2017 report that analyzed federal data. That’s in a stark contrast to its stated aspiration of zero work-related injuries.
Other reports have cited Tyson’s history of inadequate sick leave and a point system that penalizes workers for taking bathroom breaks. The company has only recently begun improving these policies, primarily in response to a labor shortage and in a (very belated) effort to drive up COVID vaccination uptake.
A memo released this week by staff at the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis following a nine-month investigation revealed that the meat and poultry industry was responsible for 59,000 COVID-19 cases and 269 deaths during the first year of the pandemic—about triple the numbers previously known—with the largest share attributable to Tyson. Half of the entire workforce at Tyson’s Amarillo, Texas plant contracted the coronavirus between March 2020 and February 2021.
In conjunction with the memo, the Select Subcommittee held a hearing this week on the topic of the meatpacking industry’s treatment of its workers during the pandemic (you can watch it on YouTube).* The panel of witnesses—a national expert on worker safety and occupational health policy, a meatpacking union representative, an ACLU lawyer whose immigrant parents worked in the plants, and a community organizer who organizes poultry workers for better pay and working conditions—gave damning testimony:
Witnesses described the situation in the early days of the pandemic, when companies in other industries were shutting down or curtailing operations to prevent spread of the virus while Tyson and its competitors rejected CDC guidance on social distancing and quarantining, instead incentivizing and intimidating sick employees to keep them reporting to work. They characterized the actions that Tyson and the industry eventually took as public relations crisis management rather than real measures to protect workers—explaining that the companies could have saved lives by implementing new sick leave policies and slowing the speeds of their slaughtering and butchering lines to enable distancing, but they didn’t. They described a terrified immigrant workforce silenced by implicit or explicit threats of retaliation. And they noted that more meat and poultry workers have died in the last 18 months than in the previous 15 years, while the industry raked in cash—including Tyson’s reported $43 billion in 2020 revenue, a nearly 2 percent increase over 2019.
Dressing up like family farmers
But “humane employer” isn’t Tyson’s only disguise. Sometimes the company tries on a “good corporate citizen” costume or a “family farmer” mask. Tyson attempts both at once in this ad that ran recently in Northwest Arkansas, near its corporate headquarters:
With this happy farm couple and declaration of home state pride, Tyson is again trying to deflect and disguise facts. The ad appeared shortly after the launch of a UCS report and on-the-ground reporting from The Guardian exposed the truth about Tyson’s impact on Arkansas chicken farmers and their communities. Our joint investigation found that:
Tyson operates like a monopoly, ruthlessly stamping out competition. The company now accounts for more than two-thirds of the Arkansas’s poultry processing.
Tyson’s increasing stranglehold on the industry since 1990 has coincided with a loss of half of the poultry farms in Arkansas. That has happened even as the number of chickens raised in the state every year has risen 1,000%.
Tyson’s huge concentration of chicken waste has polluted Arkansas communities, including disadvantaged counties with a large share of the state’s Latino and Native American population.
Tyson PR team, WE SEE YOU. Try as you might, you just can’t dress up the facts. Far from a benevolent boss or a friend to farmers, your too-big, too-greedy company is a corporate monster.
*It must be noted that some subcommittee members at the hearing (including multiple known seditionists) shamefully ignored the hearing’s topic and its witnesses altogether, instead using their Q&A time to grandstand on unrelated issues such as the current price of gasoline, lumber, and canned vegetables; what did or didn’t happen in a lab in Wuhan, China; migrants at the southern border; and the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.