NEW ORLEANS (CN) – Tyson Foods, the largest meat producer in the United States, is a major cause of an enormous dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico – expected to be the largest ever this summer – according to a new report from an environmental nonprofit.
Toxins from fertilizer and manure that pour into the Mississippi River from farms throughout America’s heartland eventually dump into the Gulf of Mexico, where they feed toxic algae blooms that suck out the oxygen, creating hypoxia, or strangulation of life.
The hypoxic area or dead zone is created every year in the Gulf and peaks in size in July.
As an idea of how toxic U.S. agriculture has become to the environment, last year alone 1.15 million metric tons of nitrogen pollutants from Midwest agricultural runoff flowed into the Gulf of Mexico from the Mississippi River, according to a report by Mighty, an environmental group chaired by former Congressman Henry Waxman.
That is roughly 170 percent more pollution than was caused by the 2010 BP oil spill.
Mighty identified the biggest contributors to pollution as a small number of meat production companies, including Tyson Foods – the primary contributor, according to the report released Tuesday: “Mystery Meat: The Industry Behind the Quiet Destruction of the American Heartland.”
“America’s largest meat company, Tyson Foods, stood out for its expansive footprint in all the regions suffering the worst pollution impacts from industrial meat and feed production,” the report states.
Tyson, which owns brands such as Jimmy Dean, Hillshire Farm, Ball Park and Sara Lee, and supplied food and grocery chains including McDonald’s and Walmart, consistently ranks among the top polluters, the report states.
Tyson is responsible for one in every five pounds of meat produced in the United States. It slaughters of 35 million chickens and 125,000 head of cattle every week and requires 5 million acres of corn a year for feed.
“The company is consistently ranked among the top polluters in America, although Tyson’s new CEO has declared that a focus on sustainability will be at the center of the company’s future plans,” the report states.
Tyson is the only meat company with major processing facilities in every state listed by the U.S. Geological Survey as contributing the highest levels of pollution into the Gulf, according to the report.
Much of the contamination comes from the massive quantities of corn and soy grown to raise meat animals. The pollution winds up not just in the Gulf of Mexico, but in drinking water.
Every year 7 million Americans are exposed to unhealthy levels of nitrate contamination in their drinking water, according to a report issued last week from Environmental Working Group.
The group found that in 2015, water systems that served 7 million people in 48 states contained dangerously high levels of nitrates, which have been linked to increased risk of contracting certain cancers.
Agricultural runoff is a leading source of pollution in the U.S. and is largely exempt from federal laws that protect drinking water. Much of the agricultural runoff comes from corn and soybean crops that are largely raised to feed chickens, pigs and cattle for slaughter.
Americans eat 211 pounds of meat a year, and according to a report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, meat consumption is on the rise.
A simple solution, the report says, would be for meat processors such as Tyson to refuse to work with corn and soybean growers that use fertilizer containing pollutants.
“Americans should not have to choose between producing food and having healthy clean water,” Mighty campaign director Lucia von Reusner said in a statement. “Big meat companies like Tyson have left a trail of pollution across the country, and have responsibility to their customers and the public to clean it up.”
Tyson should require its soybean growers to provide “pollution-free feed” for livestock it raises – chicken, pigs, and cattle – the report states.
“This report shows that our nation’s largest meat companies shape our food system on a massive scale, and can implement the solutions needed to make meat less polluting,” according to the 16-page report.
Tyson sold the Guardian newspaper through a spokeswoman: “It is true the livestock and poultry industry is a major buyer of grain for feed, however, the report fails to note that a large percentage of corn raised in the U.S. is used for biofuel and that a significant portion is used for human consumption.”
She added: “Tyson Foods is focused on continuous improvement. We are constantly looking to improve and lead the industry, so that we can deliver sustainable food to people every day at a scale that matters to the world.”
Even during a usual year, the dead zone in the northern Gulf of Mexico is the largest in North America and the second largest in the world, according to data collected by environmental groups.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration this week is expected to announce the largest ever recorded dead zone in the Gulf. It is expected to surpass even the 8,200 square-mile area – roughly the size of New Jersey – estimate from July.
The dead zone in the Gulf has been monitored for the past 32 years. It stretches from the mouth of the Mississippi River into Texas and is created every year by low oxygen levels in water.
“This massive Dead Zone shows that current efforts from states and the feds are woefully inadequate,” Matt Rota, senior policy director for the Gulf Restoration Network, said in a statement. “Study after study has shown that everyone from EPA to state environmental departments needs to step up their game. Unfortunately, this hasn’t happened. In fact, we just see the Dead Zone growing bigger and bigger.”
Rota continued: “I honestly can’t see the EPA under the Trump administration taking the steps necessary, such as setting enforceable limits on Dead Zone-causing pollution, to reverse this alarming trend. It is time for industrial ag companies like Tyson that contribute to the pollution of the Mississippi and Gulf to do what is right and clean up their mess.”
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.