Tyson Foods, one of the largest producers of meat in the world, is responsible for dumping more toxic pollution by volume into U.S. waters than companies like Exxon and Dow Chemical, according to a new analysis from environmental advocacy group Environment America.
The analysis, released last Wednesday, coincides with a decision by Tyson shareholders not to institute a new water policy that would have mandated the company keep better track of its water pollution both inside and outside of its direct facilities.
Water pollution from Tyson Foods comes from a variety of sources, from the fertilizer used by farmers to grow feed for animals to the manure produced by raising thousands of animals in factory farms. But those figures aren’t publicly available, as Tyson is only legally required to report pollution from its processing plants to the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory. According to those reports, Tyson dumped 104 million pounds of pollutants into U.S. waterways between 2010 and 2014 — the second highest volume of toxic discharges reported by any company, and higher than the discharges of companies like US Steel Corp, Koch Industries, and ExxonMobil.
“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.”
Much of the pollution from Tyson’s processing facilities — which includes animal waste and waste products — are nitrate compounds, which can have a detrimental effect on both environmental and public health. In high concentrations, nitrates in drinking water can hinder a body’s ability to carry enough oxygen to cells, causing potentially severe health problems for infants and people with compromised immune systems. In the environment, nitrates can lead to algal blooms and dead zones that deprive marine ecosystems of oxygen needed to sustain aquatic life.
In 2014 alone, processing plants owned by Tyson Foods dumped 20 million pounds of pollution into U.S. waterways, according to Environment America’s analysis — an amount that has remained fairly steady over the past five years, according to Rumpler.
Tyson’s pollution has been the subject of several legal challenges over the years, with the company paying more than $25 million in legal settlements and fines since 2001. Most recently, the Attorney General of Missouri filed a lawsuit against Tyson Foods accusing the company of illegally discharging untreated wastewater that led to the death of up to 100,000 fish. Tyson settled with Missouri in 2015 and agreed to pay
But Rumpler says that Environment America’s most recent analysis “just scratches the surface” of water pollution created by Tyson and other agribusiness giants like Cargill, Pilgrims Pride, and Perdue.
“At a certain point, we have to ask ourselves if the amount of waste created by this [industrial food] system is sustainable,” Rumpler said.
Industry-wide statistics on the total amount of waste created throughout a meat producer’s supply chain — from grain grown for feed to waste created during processing — are hard to come by. Maryland, which is home to the United States’ ninth-largest poultry industry, estimates that chicken farming in the state produces a total of 650 million pounds of manure each year. Of those millions of pounds of waste, more than 200,000 pounds annually makes its way into the Chesapeake Bay.
And Maryland isn’t unique — by some estimates, factory farms can produce more waste than some U.S. cities. According to a 2010 report released by the National Association of Local Boards of Health, livestock animals in the United States can produce anywhere from 1.2 to 1.37 billion tons of waste each year. And while human waste must be handled by waste treatment plants, no such requirement exists for animal waste.
Recently, a coalition of legislators and environmental groups in Maryland introduced a bill that would require chicken producers — companies like Perdue, which is headquartered in Maryland, and Tyson — to be responsible for dealing with the excess manure produced by their chickens. Historically, excess manure has been the burden of contract farmers, who grow chickens for the integrators but do not own the chickens. And attempts to hold agribusiness responsible for the waste produced by their operations — even if that waste occurs outside of their facilities walls — are on the rise throughout the country. In Eastern Washington, a judge recently ruled that several dairies must treat their manure as a solid waste after high concentrations of nitrates were found in nearby drinking water. And in Iowa, the Des Moines Water Works, a regional utility, is currently suing three counties over water quality, which the utility claims has been impaired due to excessive fertilizer runoff.
“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.”