Two food advocacy groups have accused Tyson
Groups allege Tyson has made false advertising claims
Food and Water Watch, a food advocacy group, and Venceremos, a poultry workers’ rights organization, together accuse Tyson Foods of making two false claims to consumers. First, that the company works with “independent” family farmers and, second, that it provides its plant workers with a “safe work environment.”
Though much of the evidence contained in the FTC complaint predates the pandemic, the groups argue that worker deaths and illness tied to Coronavirus outbreaks at Tyson processing plants make it abundantly clear that the company’s claim that it provides a “safe work environment” is false.
“Independent” farmers may not be independent
Like many other poultry companies, Tyson Foods contracts with farmers to raise their chickens until they are ready to be shipped to plants for processing. While the contract farmers are not employees of Tyson Foods, Food and Water Watch and Venceremos argue the characterization of these farmers as “independent” is both false and misleading to consumers.
According to a 2018 report cited in the complaint, the Small Business Administration’s inspector general determined that many of these poultry farmers were not truly independent, as they were unable to effectively negotiate contract terms with large and powerful corporations, including Tyson Foods. In effect, it isn’t a level playing field.
Typically in these arrangements, Tyson supplies the chickens and feed to their contract farmers, who in turn are responsible for the housing, labor and utilities. But the complaint alleges that Tyson’s contract farmers had to grow the birds according to the specific requirements set forth Tyson, and that these relationships offer no room for true negotiation.
For example, farmers are required to make expensive upgrades to their chicken barns without any added compensation to offset the additional costs. To make matters worse, these farmers feel they have nowhere to go once locked into the contract.
According to the complaint, “the average sized family farm is now spending over an additional $13,000 for utilities since upgrading their poultry houses to Tyson’s specifications,” without additional compensation from the company.
To be clear, these contractual arrangements are not unique to Tyson. Poultry farmers who work with companies like Pilgrim’s Pride
have also complained that these relationships were unfair and economically damaging. At the same time, there are certainly farmers who report satisfaction with their longstanding arrangements with poultry companies, including Tyson.
Tyson’s “safe working environment” called false
The advocacy groups also allege that Tyson’s claim that it provides a safe working environment is false. Tyson was forced to close multiple processing plants due to coronavirus outbreaks in its workforce. The complaint alleges that “more than 8,500 Tyson employees at 37 poultry, pork, and beef plants in seven states have been confirmed to have tested positive for COVID-19, an infection count more than double that of any other meatpacker.”
Twenty-five Tyson employees have died from the Coronavirus, the complaint also alleges. According to reporting by Leah Douglas for the Food and Environment Network, there have been more than ten thousand Coronavirus cases in the Tyson Foods workforce, thousands more than at competitors Cargill and JBS.
Tyson announces expanded Coronavirus testing
On Thursday, Tyson launched a new initiative for combatting the spread of COVID-19 in its workforce, with increased testing and the appointment of a chief medical officer, as well as increased nursing staff.
In addition to the new initiative from Tyson, the company published an open letter to its team members on May 1 regarding the safety measures put into place at its processing plants, including regular deep cleaning and access to onsite testing.
Must prove claims were likely to mislead consumers
The FTC has defined false and unlawful advertising claims as a representation or omission that is “material to a consumer’s decision making” and “likely to mislead.”
Proving that consumers could be misled into buying Tyson meat at the supermarket based on advertising about family farms or safe working conditions may be difficult, as most consumers are still making choices based on price, taste and convenience above all else.
Yet the perceived meat shortages at the grocery store has made an impact, leading at least some consumers to pay closer attention to where their meat comes from, both how it is raised and how it is produced. Whether that’s enough to meet the FTC legal standard, however, still remains to be seen.
Representatives from Tyson Foods did not respond to a request for comment on the FTC filing.