Opinion: Time for Tyson to be up front in chicken marketing

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Throughout my almost two decades of covering the going-ons of big agriculture, no company was more in the public and lawsuit cross hairs than St. Louis-based Monsanto. 


A good part of the problem was self-inflicted from poor internal company decisions on production of chemical products to a gosh-awful public relations and communications division which when not ducking questions often shot itself in the foot.

Bayer set in motion purchase of Monsanto back in 2016 and has spent much of the time since trying to deal with massive lawsuit problems regarding Round-Up herbicide and lawsuits suggesting it can cause cancer in humans.

But for the most part Bayer has avoided new conflicts over Monsanto.

Enter Tyson Foods.  

Just in the last 24 months Tyson has become a lawsuit pinata.  A partial list over just the last 12 months includes:

  • A Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund United Stockgrowers of America (R-CALF USA) lawsuit alleging Tyson (along with Cargill, National Beef, and JBS) colluded together to artificially reduce cattle prices.
  • A Sispey Heritage Commission announced lawsuit over a pollution spill into Alabama's Black Warrior River where state estimate the deaths of at least 175,000 fish.
  • A lawsuit from nine cattlemen alleging Tyson Foods paid former USDA Secretary Mike Espy and other USDA officials $12,000 in exchange for preferential treatment.

In fact Good Jobs First Tracker says Tyson Foods has paid out more than $164 million since 2000 in penalties.  

It's fair to said Tyson is a lawsuit generating machine.

Which brings us to a new labeling lawsuit. 

Organic Consumers Association and Food and Water Watch are suing Tyson Foods in Superior District Court of the District of Columbia citing violations of the Consumer Protection Procedures Act. 

According to the lawsuit, the plaintiffs say Tyson Foods likes to market to the public that the company “employs environmentally responsible and humane production practices” in providing chicken to consumers.

The lawsuit says Tyson's marketing strategy is not grounded in reality in that the company and its contractors “systematically breed, hatch, raise, transport, and slaughter chickens in environmentally harmful and inhumane, disease-ridden factory-farm conditions.”

The non-profits provide a laundry basket of practices to buttress their claims:

  • The raising and slaughter of birds in facilities contaminated with antibiotic-resistant pathogens;
  • The use of toxic chemicals and the regular emission of large amounts of hazardous and nonhazardous pollutants into local waterways and airsheds;
  • The routine use of anti-parasitic drugs, the injections of chicken eggs with formaldehyde, and the washing of the products with hazardous chemical disinfectants;
  • The crowing of birds by the tens of thousands into massive industrial warehouses with no access to the outdoors;
  • The use of artificially selected fast-growing, breast-heavy chicken breeds that have chronic, painful, and debilitating health conditions; and 
  • The abuse of chickens by Tyson contractors and employees.

Truth be told, Tyson Foods has already been found guilty in past lawsuits of a few of these charges.

As an aside, rival chicken companies Sanderson Farms and Perdue Farms reached a settlement with Tyson Foods to stop the company from using marketing claims that it chickens were “raised without antibiotics” despite its use of ionophores which has been classified by USDA as an antibiotic.

The Consumer Protection Procedures Act allows plaintiffs to collect triple damages or $1,500 per violation. 

On the fact of it it would appear the CPPA fines could add up to some significant dollars, but recent case law has potentially taken the sting out of penalties.

It's probably part of the reason that Organic Consumers Association and Food and Water Watch are not seeking monetary damages. 

Rather the non-profits want Tyson to cease pulling the wool over the public's eye when it comes to marketing chickens. Truth win out Tyson. 

It's time to develop marketing campaigns that do not deceive the public.

About Dave Dickey

Dave Dickey

Dickey spent nearly 30 years at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s NPR member station WILL-AM 580 where he won a dozen Associated Press awards for his reporting. For 13 years, he directed Illinois Public Media’s agriculture programming. His weekly column for the Midwest Center covers agriculture and related issues including politics, government, environment and labor. Email him at dave.dickey@investigatemidwest.org.