Meat Giant Tyson Foods Released 87 Billion Gallons of Toxic Waste into U.S. Waters | Totally Vegan Buzz

Meat Giant Tyson Foods Released 87 Billion Gallons of Toxic Waste into U.S. Waters

Tyson Foods, the heavyweight champion of the U.S. meat industry, has been throwing its weight around in a less savory arena. According to a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), between 2018 and 2022, Tyson discharged 371 million pounds of pollutants, including nitrogen, phosphorus, chloride, oil, and cyanide, into rivers, lakes, and wetlands across 17 states. The wastewater from Tyson’s 41 processing plants contained harmful substances such as blood, bacteria, and animal feces, polluting water sources crucial for drinking, fishing, and recreation. While it’s not a competition anyone would want to win, Tyson seems to be going for gold in the pollution Olympics, with its operations concentrated heavily in states like Nebraska, Illinois, and Missouri.

Of the 371.7 million pounds of pollutants released, the study finds nitrogen accounted for 34.2 million pounds and phosphorus accounted for 5.1 million pounds. Both of these nutrients can harm plant and animal life in waterways when found in excess. The pollutants contribute to algal blooms, which clog water infrastructure, exacerbate respiratory conditions like asthma, and create dead zones in the sea where marine life suffocates.

“You see a large part of the pollution is clustered around the Mississippi River Basin,” said UCS co-author Omanjana Goswami. “Eventually, a lot of this flows into the Mississippi River, which then finds its way to the Gulf of Mexico, which then has this massive hypoxic dead zone.”

The dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico has been a problem for decades. The overabundance of nutrients can starve aquatic life of oxygen, said Kelly McGinnis, executive director of the Mississippi River Network.

Environmental scientists, such as Dr. Lisa Hendrickson, emphasize the severity of the pollution. “The release of nitrogen and phosphorus on this scale is catastrophic for both human and ecological health,” Hendrickson explains. Community leaders like Sarah Thomas in Lexington, Nebraska, highlight the direct consequences on local populations, including increased waterborne illnesses and a decline in recreational activities and fishing.

“Companies like Tyson Foods have a massive hold on our farming system,” said Goswami. “If you’ve bought chicken at the supermarket or if you’ve eaten nuggets at McDonald’s, you’ve most likely been a consumer of Tyson Foods. It’s really hard to avoid.”

While the Union of Concerned Scientists’ report revealed significant pollution by Tyson Foods, it doesn’t cover the entire meat industry or all of Tyson’s facilities. Goswami clarified that smaller Tyson plants not requiring an EPA permit weren’t included. “Which means what they are releasing is going on unchecked in terms of both quantity of pollutants as well as category and type of pollutants,” she said. “And we are not able to capture that data.”

The EPA estimates only about 300 of the 7,000 meat processing plants in the country need pollution discharge permits. Goswami highlighted the limited reporting: “Because such a small number of plants are required to report, researchers are ‘looking at a scale of pollution whose ceiling we can’t quantify.'”

McGinnis emphasized that the report examines only meat processing facilities, a single segment of the meat supply chain. “My mind could not help but make a connection to the concentrated animal feeding operations that are also operating in these same areas,” she said. “This report shows an astonishing impact on water quality by one company, and it seems there’s so much deeper we can go.”

A Tyson spokesperson responded by saying the company monitors its wastewater and collaborates with regulators. “Tyson Foods uses a robust management system to mitigate environmental risks and impact, and we strive to run our operations as responsible stewards of our natural resources,” the spokesperson said. “This report does not acknowledge our ongoing compliance with EPA regulations and certification by the Water Alliance for our strong water management practices.”

The UCS report mentions Tyson’s previous penalties, including a $2 million criminal fine in 2018 for violating the Clean Water Act in Missouri and a $3 million settlement in 2021 over illegal wastewater discharge that killed hundreds of thousands of fish in Alabama. Tyson’s 2023 revenue was over $50 billion.

“When you’re able to have that kind of wealth concentrated in a company, they are not deterred by the fines that the current structure of the systems have in place,” McGinnis said. “We know there are other large-scale companies like Tyson.”

The EPA is updating its wastewater pollution regulations for meat processing industries, particularly for nitrogen and phosphorus, Goswami noted. “We’ve known, historically and based on the agenda that these companies have of prioritizing profit, that they’re most likely going to push back on regulations like this,” she said.

McGinnis stressed the need for more regulations and urged large companies like Tyson to rethink how they measure success. “Climate change is only going to exacerbate the impacts of water pollution,” she said. “I think that means for a company like Tyson, are there other metrics of successful business besides just your profits?”

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