RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

What Do You Expect from Food Industry?

An under-reported story in April was the big win by Oklahoma chicken growers in a lawsuit against Tyson. The growers complained that Tyson was forcing them to grow chickens at less than break-even prices, “driving hundreds of families into bankruptcy and foreclosure.”

The jury awarded 10 families $7.3 million, agreeing that Tyson’s practices are deceptive and co-ercive. One Tyson strategy is to allow growers to make just enough money to get by and make their payments, then to demand “upgrades” to the almost-paid-for chicken houses, keeping the growers in such debt that they are afraid to rebel against the demands.

This is just the latest in a long string of winning lawsuits against Tyson. The cost of doing business, they might say, but we the consumer should realize that a pattern of deception and coercion operates against us, too, no matter how cheap the food. And hey! Vegetarian! Wipe that smile off your face! I’m talking to you also, because when you buy organic veggies or organic fertilizers for your gardens, you’re buying the poo that the big poultry growers have composted, because organic standards allow fertilizer to contain most anything, as long as it passes through a critter.

Sneaky deception is part of the mission statement for these big guys. Recently, Tyson was admonished by the USDA over the use of labelling chicken as “natural.” The controversy is telling, if you’re interested in how conniving a corporate culture can be: Told to keep antibiotics out of the food and water given to growing chickens, the company started injecting in into eggs. “Raised without antibiotics,” says the label. Puh-leez!

One problem with the overuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture, and I tell you this in case you’ve been living in a cave somewhere and haven’t heard, is that bacteria are now getting immune to antibiotics. It’s one of the biggest problems in hospitals today, and as time goes on, the bacteria are becoming immune to more and more potent drugs.

Tyson’s rebuttal is that injecting antibiotics in eggs is a standard industry practice. “The vast majority of the industry does exactly the same thing,” said Tyson Veep Archie Schaffer.

There’s your clue, dear consumer — stop buying from “the industry.”

The fingers of falsity are long and double-jointed and they reach into all areas of the industrial food system. Here in Missouri, Tyson pleaded guilty to 20 felony violations of the Clean Water Act and agreed to pay $7.5 million in fines. From their Sedalia plant, which processes an estimated 1 million chickens per week and discharges hundreds of thousands of gallons of polluted water, they had illegally discharged untreated wastewater into a creek that ran by the processing plant. The case was back in 2003, and the discharges even earlier, and there’s really no telling what was in that water. At any rate, it’s gone down the Mississippi and is part of that giant BP oil slick by now.

The oil slick is still in the news but we don’t hear much about the worker deaths in corporate business-as-usual. Over in Arkansas, Tyson was fined a mere $500,000 in a worker death caused by toxic fumes. In that plant, poultry “products” (like feathers, bones and organs) are turned into “fats and protein” for animal food. The process, like many chemical processes, gives off hydrogen sulfide gas. It’s supposed to be misted out into the atmosphere, but sometimes it gets caught in the plant and builds up. “A tragic accident,” said the company.

The victim, Jason Kelley, was a member of the community. Not being cynical, I won’t point out that if he had been another type of Tyson worker — the undocumented immigrant — his death might have been covered up by his terrified co-workers. Note to the tea-baggers: Fix the food system and you’ll fix illegal immigration.

Over in Shelbyville, Tenn., Tyson jobs fueled growth in the Latino population, from 92 in 1989 to 2,343 in 1995. One prosperous Mexican store owner, catering to the Latinos, also provided more than 2,000 illegal workers to Tyson and got them counterfeit work documents. When they arrived, he helped them buy cars and rent houses. He painted his pickup truck to point out that he was “Jefe de Jefes,” or “boss of bosses.”

But here’s the thing: Working for the bad boys won’t make you King. He’s in jail now in the largest immigrant-smuggling case in America. Six Tyson corporate underlings have been dismissed or placed on leave from the company, but Tyson lawyers say the top brass were unaware of the problem. One prosecutor, at least, gets it. A Chattanooga assistant US Attorney said, “It’s much more productive, we think, to attack ... the companies that recruit these illegals, than to pursue endless prosecutions of illegals at the border.”

There’s an opera in this Tyson story somewhere, or at least a musical comedy. “Come gather ’round people and hear this old tale ... about food CEOs that should be in some jail ...”

I’ll hum a few bars ... it should sound familiar.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

From The Progressive Populist, June 1, 2010

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