May 24, 2024


Tyson Foods dumped millions of pounds of toxic pollutants directly into American rivers and lakes over the last five years, threatening critical ecosystems, endangering wildlife and human health, a new investigation reveals.

Nitrogen, phosphorus, chloride, oil and cyanide were among the 371m lb of pollutants released into waterways by just 41 Tyson slaughterhouses and mega processing plants between 2018 and 2022.

According to research by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), the contaminants were dispersed in 87bn gallons of wastewater – which also contains blood, bacteria and animal feces – and released directly into streams, rivers, lakes and wetlands relied on for drinking water, fishing and recreation. The UCS analysis, shared exclusively with the Guardian, is based on the most recent publicly available water pollution data Tyson is required to report under current regulations.

The wastewater was enough to fill about 132,000 Olympic-size pools, according to a Guardian analysis.

Four blue diagrams of a swimming pool, with one cut into a quarter. Below is a satellite map of the greater New York City area, with a blue rectangle overlaid, covering more than the area of Manhattan.

The water pollution from Tyson, a Fortune 100 company and the world’s second largest meat producer, was spread across 17 states but about half the contaminants were dumped into streams, rivers, lakes and wetlands in Nebraska, Illinois and Missouri.

The midwest is already saturated with nitrogen and phosphorus from industrial agriculture – factory farms and synthetics fertilizers – contributing to algal blooms that clog critical water infrastructure, exacerbate respiratory conditions like asthma, and deplete oxygen levels in the sea causing marine life to suffocate and die.

Yet the UCS research is only the tip of iceberg, including water pollution from only one in three of the corporation’s slaughterhouses and processing plants, and only 2% of the total nationwide.

The current federal regulations set no limit for phosphorus, and the vast majority of meat processing plants in the US are exempt from existing water regulations – with no way of tracking how many toxins are being dumped into waterways.

“There are over 5,000 meat and poultry processing plants in the United States, but only a fraction are required to report pollution and abide by limits. As one of the largest processors in the game, with a near-monopoly in some states, Tyson is in a unique position to treat even hefty fines and penalties for polluting as simply the cost of doing business. This has to change,” said the UCS co-author Omanjana Goswami.

The findings come as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) must decide between robust new regulations that experts say would better protect waterways, critical habitat and downstream communities from polluting plants – or opt for weaker standards preferred by the powerful meat-processing industry.

A 2017 lawsuit by environmental groups has forced the EPA to update its two-decade-old pollution standards for slaughterhouses and animal rendering facilities, and the new rule is expected by September 2025. The agency has said that it is leaning towards the weakest option on the table, which critics say will enable huge amounts of nitrates, phosphorus and other contaminants to keep pouring into waterways.

“The current rule is out of date, inadequate and catastrophic for American waterways, and highlights the way American lawmaking is subject to industry capture,” said Dani Replogle, an attorney at Food and Water Watch. “The nutrient problem in the US is at catastrophic levels … it would be such a shame if the EPA caves in to industry influence.”

The meat-processing industry spent $4.3m on lobbying in Washington in 2023, of which Tyson accounted for almost half ($2.1m), according to political finance watchdog Open Secrets. The industry has made $6.6m in campaign donations since 2020, mostly to Republicans, with Tyson the biggest corporate spender.

“We can be sure Tyson and other big ag players will object to efforts to update pollution regulations, but the EPA should listen to communities whose wells, lakes, rivers and streams have been contaminated and put people over corporate profits,” said Goswami.

“Meat and poultry companies spend hundreds of millions of dollars to comply with EPA’s effluent limitations guidelines,” said Sarah Little from the North American Meat Institute, a trade association representing large processors like Tyson. “EPA’s new proposed guidelines will cost over $1bn and will eliminate 100,000 jobs in rural communities.”

Tyson did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

The American Association of Meat Processors said the EPA’s one-size-fits-all approach could put its small, family-owned members out of business.

A grid of colored squares. Most are blue, a small grouping at the top are yellow, and an even smaller portion is outlined in red.


Nebraska is a sparsely populated rural state dominated by agriculture – an increasingly consolidated corporate industry which wields substantial control over the economy and politics, as well as land and water use.

Millions of acres in Nebraska are dedicated to factory farming, with massive methane-emitting concentrated animal feeding operations (Cafos) scattered among fields of monocropped soybean, corn and wheat – grown predominantly for animal feed and ethanol. Only a tiny fraction of arable land is dedicated to sustainable agriculture or used to grow vegetables or fruits.

Tyson’s five largest plants in Nebraska dumped more than 111m lb of pollutants into waterways between 2018 and 2022, accounting for a third of the nationwide total. This included 4m lb of nitrates – a chemical that can contaminate drinking water, cause blood disorders and neurological defects in infants, as well as cancers and thyroid disease in adults.

Tyson’s largest plant is located in Dakota City on the Missouri river – America’s longest waterway which stretches 2,300 miles across eight states before joining the Mississippi. It’s a sprawling beef facility, which generates a nauseating stench that wafts over neighboring South Sioux city, known locally as sewer city, where many plant workers live. (Another beef processing plant is located next to Tyson.)

Earlier this month, the Guardian saw multiple trucks waiting to offload cattle for slaughter – after which the carcasses are rendered, processed and packaged in different parts of the facility. The plant produces vast quantities of wastewater which is stored (and treated) in lagoons on the riverbank, before being released into the Missouri river which provides drinking water for millions of people.

The Dakota City plant is a major local employer and Tyson’s single largest polluter, dumping 60m lb of contaminants into waterways between 2018 and 2022, according to UCS analysis.

Every year in November around 30,000 Sandhill Cranes begin their annual migration from the North Platte River in Nebraska to Southern Arizona. Photograph: Christopher Brown/Zuma Press Wire/Rex/Shutterstock

“This Tyson plant helped put me through college and supports a lot of migrant workers, but there’s a dark side like the water and air pollution that most people don’t pay attention to because they’re just trying to survive,” said Rogelio Rodriguez, a grassroots organizer with Conservation Nebraska, which is part of a coalition pushing for stronger state protections for meat processing plant workers.

“If regulations are lax, corporations have a tendency to push limits to maximize profits, we learnt that during Covid,” said Rodriguez, whose family works at the plant. A deadly Covid outbreak at the Dakota City plant in April 2020 sickened 15% of the workforce and led to substantial community spread.

A few miles south of the Dakota City Tyson plant, the Winnebago tribe is slowly recuperating and reforesting their land, as well as transitioning to organic farming.

“We’re investing a lot of money to look after the water and soil on our lands because it’s the right thing to do, yet a few miles north the Tyson plant lets all this pollution go into the river. Water is our most important resource, and the Missouri river is very important to our culture and people,” said Aaron LaPointe, a Winnebago tribe member who runs Ho-Chunk Farms.

The water problem – and lack of accountability – goes beyond Tyson.

Last year Governor Jim Pillen, whose family owns one of America’s largest pork companies, was widely criticized for calling a Chinese-born journalist at Flatwater Free Press a “communist” after she exposed serious water quality violations at his hog farms. Earlier this month, the Nebraska supreme court ruled that the state environmental agency could charge the same investigative news outlet tens of thousands of dollars for a public records request about nitrates.

Big ag’s influence on state politics is “endemic”, according to Gavin Geis from Common Cause Nebraska, a non-partisan elections watchdog.

“The big money spent on lobbying and campaigns by corporate agriculture has played a major role in resisting stronger regulation – despite clear signals such as high levels of nitrates in our groundwater and cancers in rural communities that we need more oversight for farmers across the board,” said Geis.

“We’ve created a system with no accountability that doesn’t protect our ecosystem – which includes the land, water and people of Nebraska,” said Graham Christensen, a regenerative farmer and founder of GC Resolve, a communication and consulting firm. “The political capture is harming our rural communities, we’re in the belly of the beast and need help from federal regulators.”


Indigenous Americans lived and farmed sustainably along the Missouri River until white colonial settlers forcibly displaced tribes, and eventually dammed the entire river system – mostly for energy and industrial agriculture. Today, major river systems like the Missouri River – and its communities – face multiple, overlapping threats from dams, the climate crisis, overuse and pollution.

Oxygen depleting contaminants like nitrogen and phosphorus from Tyson plants in the midwest have been shown to travel along river-to-river pathways, causing fish kills and contributing to dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico. When the river is drier due to drought or high temperatures, pollutants become more concentrated and can form sediments – which are then dislodged during floods and taken miles downstream.

Global heating is making extreme weather increasingly common, and as droughts dry up underground aquifers, tribes will probably need to turn to the Missouri for drinking water, according to Tim Grant, director of environmental protection for the Omaha tribe. “We’re very concerned about what’s in the river, it’s an important part of our culture and traditions,” said Grant, who has started testing the fish for toxins.

A segmented blue and gray bar chart.

The UCS research also found Tyson plants located close to critical habitats for endangered or threatened species – including the whooping crane, the tallest and among the rarest birds in North America.

There are currently only 500 or so wild whooping cranes – up from 20 birds in the 1940s – which stop to feed and rest along a shallow stretch of the Platte River, a tributary of the Missouri in central Nebraska, as they migrate between the Texas Gulf coast and Canada. The majestic white birds feed in the cornfields that surround the Platte River, outnumbered by the slate gray sandhill cranes that also migrate through Nebraska each spring.

Tyson’s sprawling Lexington slaughterhouse and beef processing plant is situated less than two miles from the Platte River – among four federally designated critical habitats considered essential to conservation of the whooping crane.

“The cumulative effects of exposure to these industrial toxins could pose a long-term threat to the cranes’ food sources, reproductive success and resilience as a species,” said George Cunningham, a retired aquatic ecologist and Missouri River expert at Sierra Club Nebraska.

“Poor environmental regulation is down to the stranglehold industrial agriculture has on politics – at every level. It’s about political capture.”



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