Tyson Foods Inc. was the second biggest polluter of America’s waterways from 2010 to 2014, according to data the company submitted to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) Toxic Release Inventory. Ranking only behind AK Steel Holding Corp, Tyson Foods and its subsidiaries’ processing plants dumped more than 104 million pounds of pollutants into waterways over those five years – more than Cargill Inc., Koch Industries Inc., and ExxonMobil Corporation combined.
The information was published by environmental advocacy group Environment America in a recent analysis, which noted also that “a substantial portion” of Tyson Foods’ toxic discharges were nitrate compounds. Nitrates can contribute to algal blooms and dead zones, as well as otherwise threaten ecosystems and human health. For example, Tyson Foods was held liable for the contamination of Clear Creek, Missouri that resulted in the killing of at least 100,000 fish. The company was sentenced to pay more than $530,000 in penalties, damages and environmental improvements.
“In the public’s mind, if you were to ask who are the big polluters, they would say Exxon, Dow, Dupont,” John Rumpler, senior attorney with Environment America, told ThinkProgress. “I think most people who go to the supermarket to buy chicken don’t realize that Tyson is — by volume — heads and shoulders above some of these well-known polluter names.”
The amounts of toxic discharge reported to the EPA do not include factory farm and fertilizer runoff, but these also greatly contribute to waterway pollution and nitrate content. For example, the drinking water in Des Moines, Iowa is at risk of breaching federal quality standards due to high nitrate runoff from local agribusiness. The Des Moines Water Works board is suing three rural counties responsible for the high nitrate levels in the Racoon River (Calhoun, Buena Vista, and Sac) and the lawsuit is slated for court this year. Tyson Foods has not been implicated in the suit, but the company did disclose that its pork processing plant in Perry – downstream from the defendant counties and upstream from Des Moines – discharged 107,025 pounds of toxic discharge in 2014. Virtually all of the hogs in the state are raised on factory farms.
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“All of our human waste goes to a sewage treatment plant,” Rumpler said. “All of this animal manure gets spread on cropland, over-applied to a laughable degree, and of course it ends up in our water. We have to stop allowing that to happen if we really want to see clean water.”
Tyson Foods, as one of the world’s largest producers of meat and poultry, relies on factory farms to maintain their high rates of production. In 2014, the company claimed its average weekly production was 41,000,000 chickens, 133,000 cattle, and 383,000 pigs, for a total of 73,000,000 pounds per week.
At the company’s annual meeting on February 5, Tyson Foods shareholders voted against a resolution to institute a water stewardship policy. The resolution outlined concerns regarding the financial and reputational risks associated with water contamination, citing several million dollars in fines and penalties since 2001, but only attracted about 197 million supporting votes and nearly 714 million votes against. More than 60 leading institutional investors sent joint letters to 15 food and beverage companies, including Tyson Foods, urging better water risk management in August 2015. Tyson Foods has failed to implement any such policies, according to the filers of the rejected resolution.
Update February 17, 2016: Tyson Foods released an official statement in response to the accusations from Environment America, which states, "The data Environment America is misinterpreting is the information we regularly provide the EPA about the treated water we release from our wastewater treatment systems.
"We have programs, policies and experts on staff to help us continually improve how we manage water. We’ve reported water usage as part of our sustainability report since 2005. However, in an effort to be even more transparent about our water management efforts, we will be part of the Carbon Disclosure Project [CDP] Water Questionnaire in 2016."
In an e-mail to Sustainable Brands, a Tyson Foods spokesperson wrote that the company expects to disclose more information about its water management efforts in its next sustainability report, "which will be posted soon."
Regarding the shareholder proposal to bolster the company's water policies, the spokesperson provided a statement from Tyson's Board with an overview of current water management efforts. These include: environmental management systems at each facility in the U.S.; the operation of 36 full-treatment and 55 pre-treatment wastewater facilities in North America in fiscal year 2015; the formation of a Water Council in fiscal year 2013; the inclusion of water use in sustainability reports since 2005 and the commitment to participate in the 2016 CDP Water Questionnaire; the support of independent family farms; active involvement in developing life cycle assessments (LCAs) for the production chain, such as the National Pork Board's water, air, land, and carbon footprint assessment; and the implementation of a Supplier Code of Conduct in 2010 that sets "ethical standards [including], among other things, a dedication to protection of the environment and a commitment to sustainable business practices."
The Board's statement concluded: "In light of current policies and continuous efforts with respect to water conservation and quality, the adoption of another policy is unnecessary, largely duplicative of the Company’s current policies and procedures and would place additional costs on the Company that produce no value for our shareholders. The Board believes the Company’s present policies and procedures appropriately and adequately address the concerns raised in the proposal. Accordingly, the Board recommends that shareholders vote AGAINST this shareholder proposal."