The letter is part of a national campaign to hold Springdale, Arkansas-based Tyson responsible for the environmental harm it has wreaked.
The nation’s largest processor of chicken, beef and pork, Tyson has more than 115,000 employees and 6,700 independent chicken contractors, according to publicly available information. Ninety of its 300 processing plants are in the United States. It reported $41.4 billion in revenue in 2014.
Environmentalists have repeatedly sued large meat producers, claiming the runoff from their feedlots overloads streams and rivers with nitrogen, much of which eventually ends up in the Gulf of Mexico, where algae feed on it, producing an immense and growing dead zone south of the mouth of the Mississippi River.
The Wednesday letter came from Mighty Earth, a coalition representing 31 Louisiana businesses, farmers and community groups, with a combined membership of 13,000.
It calls on Tyson Foods CEO Tom Hayes to fulfill a promise of sustainability he made when he took his job, by making a clear commitment to reducing water pollution and protecting natural landscapes across the country.
“In its position as the nation’s largest meat company, Tyson Foods has a unique opportunity to reduce the environmental consequences of meat and lead the industry toward better farming practices,” the letter states.
Mighty Earth says immediate action is required and calls on Tyson to set the standard for sustainable agricultural practices.
“There is a need for rapid action: the meat industry, including its feed supply, is the main source of water pollution in the United States,” the letter states. “Pollution from raising meat is contaminating drinking water across the Midwest, and flowing downstream along the Mississippi River into the Gulf of Mexico, where it causes a massive dead zone every summer — an area so polluted that marine life cannot survive. The bulk of this pollution comes from the vast quantities of animal feed produced to raise meat, and are a result of practices driving high soil erosion rates, loss of natural landscape buffers, and excess fertilizer application.”
The coalition says the pollution is largely the result of “Tyson and other meat companies’ continued tolerance of substandard practices in their supply chains.”
However, the group says, there is good news: “Solutions are available to reduce meat’s environmental impact through better feed sourcing practices, which need to be rapidly implemented to prevent this disaster from recurring.”
Tyson spokeswoman Caroline Ahn said in an email statement Thursday: “This group is making misleading claims about our company, which is committed to continuous environmental improvement. Their focus is pollution from crop production, but they overlook the many ways crops are used including human consumption and biofuel.
“We believe real change on this issue requires a broad coalition of stakeholders, not just one company. We’re collaborating with a variety of stakeholders, including public interest groups and trade associations, to promote continuous improvement in how we and our suppliers operate.”
According to “Mystery Meat II,” a recent report from Mighty Earth, chaired by former Congressman Henry Waxman, “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.”
Subtitled “The Industry Behind the Quiet Destruction of the American Heartland,” the executive summary states: “Our analysis also found Tyson to be the dominant meat company in all the regions suffering from the worst environmental impacts from industrial meat and feed production — from grassland clearing in Nebraska, Iowa and Kansas to manure and fertilizer pollution pouring into waterways from the Heartland down to the Gulf states.”
The dead zone, or hypoxic area, peaks in size every July. Last year alone 1.15 million metric tons of nitrate pollutants from Midwest agricultural runoff flowed into the Gulf of Mexico from the Mississippi, according to the report.
That is roughly 170 percent more pollution than was created by the 2010 BP oil spill.
Tyson, which owns brands such as Jimmy Dean, Hilshire Farm, Ball Park and Sara Lee, and supplies food and grocery chains including McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’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 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 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.
“The bulk of this pollution comes from the vast quantities of animal feed produced to raise meat, and are a result of practices driving high soil erosion rates, loss of natural landscape buffers, and excess fertilizer application,” the letter states.
“This year, the runoff pollution reached such levels that the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico was the largest on record, due in large measure to Tyson and other companies’ continued tolerance of substandard practices in their supply chains.
“Fortunately, solutions are available to reduce meat’s environmental impact through better feed sourcing practices, which need to be rapidly implemented to prevent this disaster from recurring.”
The letter suggests cover cropping and conservation tillage to prevent soil erosion; protecting and restoring natural landscape buffers to prevent runoff; optimizing fertilizer application to prevent excess runoff; incorporation of rotationally raised small grains into the feed rotations and a moratorium on further clearance of native ecosystems such as the “iconic American prairie.”
“You have pledged to ‘place sustainability at the center of the company’s future plans’ and show ‘how much good food can do.’ We applaud these statements, and believe a commitment to ensuring feed is sustainably sourced is crucial for demonstrating the company’s ambition,” the letter states.
It asks Tyson Foods to reply by Nov. 17, saying “how it will address the urgent environmental and public health impacts from its supply chain, and lead the industry towards a more sustainable path forward.”
Tyson is the second-largest meat producer in the world, behind only JBS of Brazil, a country ravaged by environmental destruction.