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Animal Abuse? Worker Abuse? Environmental Abuse? Consumer Abuse? Tyson’s Charged With Them All

“If you eat chicken from Tyson Foods, you may be unknowingly supporting some of the worst animal abuse, including birds bred to grow so fast they’re in constant pain, extreme violence by desensitized workers, and gruesome deaths at the slaughterhouse,” said the 30 Rock star Alec Baldwin recently.

He is right. Since 2003 when whistle-blower Virgil Butler at the Tyson’s Grannis, Arkansas, exposed birds regularly scalded alive through recent cruelty exposes by Mercy For Animals, the animal abuse at Tyson brazen and undeterred by exposes.

But animal abuse is only part of Tyson’s abusive track record. There is also worker and environmental abuse, abuse of consumers through risky products and charges of wrongdoing at the state and federal level.

During the Clinton administration, Tyson was charged with bribing Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy with gifts to influence legislation–leading to Espy’s disgraced resignation. Tyson paid $6 million to settle the accusations and two convicted Tyson executives faced prison time but President Clinton pardoned them in 2000.

In 2001, Tyson was served with a federal indictment charging that it paid smugglers to transport illegal workers across the Rio Grande, procuring them phony Social Security cards and even brazenly paying them with corporate checks.  “This is a company with a bad history,” the Rev. Jim Lewis, an Episcopal minister in Arkansas, told the New York Times. “They cheat these workers out of pay and benefits, and then try to keep them quiet by threatening to send them back to Mexico.”

In 2003, Tyson pleaded guilty to violating the Clean Water Act with effluvia from its Sedalia, Missouri facility and agreed to pay $7.5 million.  But before its probation ended, Tyson was charged by the state of Oklahoma with polluting the Illinois River watershed. Who can say incorrigible? Poultry polluters eject as much phosphorous into the watershed as a city of ten million people, said State Attorney General Drew Edmondson in bringing the changes.

In 2004, an internal Tyson memo revealed that the wives of two veterinarians stationed at Tyson plants in Mexico had been receiving about $2,700, a month “for years,” as apparent bribes.  When Tyson executives discovered the pay-offs–the payments were switched to the veterinarians themselves! “Doctors will submit one invoice which will include the special payments formally [sic] being made to their spouses along with there [sic] normal consulting services fee,” said a Tyson’s audit department memo. (Apparently employees were absent the day both ethics and spelling were taught.)

In 2006, Tyson cooperated with the Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission in an investigation of the apparent veterinarian bribery but no one was ever named or charged in the investigation.  In fact, Greg Lee, Tyson’s chief administrative officer, who received the email about the veterinarian, received $1 million when he retired and a $3.6 million consulting contract. Nice.

Greg Huett, who was president of Tyson International during the improper payments, became a director at Yuhe International, China’s largest producer of day-old broiler chicks. In 2008 Tyson opened Jiangsu Tyson Foods near Shanghai with a planned production of 1 million birds a week.

Richard Bond, Tyson’s president and chief executive said the company intends to become, “the first producer to deliver brand name, high quality fresh chicken to consumers in the eastern China market.” Some say it’s a matter of time before most US fast food chains serve chicken from China because of lenient to non-existent safety laws allowing a cheaper product.

And then there’s the safety of Tyson food itself. In 2007, the Department of Agriculture nixed Tyson’s widely-circulated advertising slogan, “Raised Without Antibiotics,” because the ionophores it uses are indeed antibiotics. Tyson’s fall-back position on its packages was “Raised without antibiotics that impact antibiotic resistance in humans,” since ionophores are not used in humans.

But the next year the USDA found more serious antibiotic fowl/foul play: Tyson was also using the human antibiotic, gentamicin, behind the public’s back!” Tyson spokesman Gary Mickelson admitted that eggs were vaccinated with gentamicin, a dangerous human antibiotic, before the birth of a chicken but insisted Tyson products were “wholesome.”

Tyson is the ‘”largest meat producer in the world and a major chicken supplier to McDonald’s, KFC, Chick-fil-A, and many others,” Alec Baldwin observed. It is also probably the most unethical.

Martha Rosenberg is an investigative health reporter. She is the author of  Born With A Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp The Public Health (Prometheus).

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