Tyson Foods, Conflict Palm Oil & Factory Farming: A Pre-Holiday Look at the True Cost of Industrial Food.

By Ashley Schaeffer Yildiz

 Content Warning: Images of Industrial Farming and Animal Violence.


The average American dinner plate – meat, potatoes and/or a frozen packaged meal with Conflict Palm Oil.

Photo credit: Flickr/1950s Unlimited

80 Years of Industrial Food

Tyson Foods, in its over 80 years of operation, has had a hugely negative impact on our food system. Tyson Foods profits off the cheap land and cheap labor that grease the wheels of the industrial food complex, specializing in the production of packaged “food” made with Conflict Palm Oil and factory farmed meat. Tyson Foods and its global subsidiaries are one of the world’s largest producers of chicken, beef, and pork––entirely raised and processed in industrial operations. It’s also well known for its popular “prepared foods” like Sara Lee baked apple pies which contain Conflict Palm Oil. As the parent company of numerous sub-brands, including Snack Food 20 laggard Hillshire Brands, it markets leading brands such as Tyson®, Jimmy Dean®, Hillshire Farm®, Sara Lee® Frozen Bakery, Ball Park®, Wright®, Aidells® and State Fair®. Palm oil is an ingredient in at least 36 Tyson products.[1]


Tyson Foods was established in 1932 and is Headquartered in Springdale, Arkansas. It is one of the most influential players in the global processed meat market and one of the biggest corporate laggards that refuses to deal with its Conflict Palm Oil problem.

Photo credit: Wikipedia

Tyson Foods’ impact on the food system

Industrial food production: A very small number of corporations control the vast majority[2] of the world’s food trade: four companies produce more than 58% of the world’s seeds; four global firms account for 97% of poultry genetics research and development; and yet another four produce more than 60% of the agrochemicals farmers use.[3]


Chickens raised in factory farms live in filthy, overcrowded conditions as seen by the battery cages above. 8.5 billion chickens are killed each year in the US alone and processed in factory farms.[4]

Photo credit: Wikipedia commons

Corporate Consolidation: Unchecked corporate consolidation has driven out much of the diversity in the marketplace and food system, creating powerful agribusiness giants who control much of what ends up on our plate. Big Ag controls over 83% of all foods in the US marketplace, dictating much of what is available in the market.[5] Tyson’s buyout of Snack Food 20 laggard Hillshire Brands marks one of the biggest mergers in the packaged food industry and establishes Tyson firmly in the top two companies by sales in the global processed meat market.


Unchecked corporate consolidation has driven out much of the diversity in the marketplace and food system

Photo credit: Lyza/Flickr

Tyson’s Impact on People

Labor rights abuses for Conflict Palm Oil: The palm oil industry is rife with forced and child labor. Because Tyson Foods lacks an adequate palm oil procurement policy, it is at extreme risk of sourcing palm oil from companies that are violating the rights of workers. Tyson Foods does not disclose its suppliers, but could have ties to IOI Group, FELDA, or Kuala Lumpur Kepong (KLK)––companies that have been exposed for their exploitative labor practices. Recent reports have exposed labor exploitation on plantations owned by palm oil giant Indofood, which is a current member of the RSPO and continues to be certified as “sustainable.” This case and others show that Tyson Foods can not rely on this flawed certification system to ensure that it is not connected to companies that are cheating workers out of fair pay and benefits, threatening workers’ health with toxic chemicals, or compelling workers to hire children and bring their spouses to work through an unjust wage system.


The palm oil industry is rife with forced and child labor.

Photo credit: Rainforest Action Network (Indofood: A Massive Loophole for Conflict Palm Oil)

Labor rights abuses for industrial meat: The meat and poultry industry has one of the highest rates of injury and illness of any industry according to the US Government Accountability Office, and the US Department of Labor calculates that poultry workers are injured five times more than other workers.[6] Despite increasing production line speeds, Tyson’s poultry workers are routinely denied bathroom breaks, and resort to wearing diapers. The company fails to provide adequate medical care to injured workers, under reports incidents of injury and illness, and denies responsibility for workers who become injured or disabled. The company is routinely fined by the federal government for refusing to pay overtime wages.[7]


Poultry workers suffer amputations at three times the rate for all workers—higher than even high-risk occupations like mining. Hispanic guest worker employee on rapidly moving chicken processing line, Montgomery, Alabama.

Photo credit:EarlDotter.com

Displacing family farmers for Conflict Palm Oil: Tyson Foods lacks a palm oil policy strong enough to ensure it does not source Conflict Palm Oil. It is estimated that 2.5 million Dayak Indigenous people in Borneo alone have been displaced[8] to make way for industrial commodity production, namely for Conflict Palm Oil plantations, which produce palm oil that then may be used in products like Sara Lee baked pies. In Indonesia, more than 700 land conflicts are related to the palm oil industry.[9]


Monocrop palm oil plantations cover more than 27 million hectares of the Earth’s surface.[10] Lush rainforests are destroyed and replaced by biological deserts void of biodiversity.

Photo credit: Nanang Sujana

Displacing family farmers for industrial meat: In 1950, 95% of broiler chicken farms were independent in the US.[11] Just five years later, independent farms only accounted for 10% of the industry, with most growers selling their goods under contract with a company.[12] Today, 97% of chickens are produced on contract farms, in a system completely rigged in favor of large corporate processors.[13] With less than 2 million family farms surviving in the US today, the once-thriving more than 6 million family farms[14] have been decimated by powerful corporations such as Tyson Foods.[15]


The little red barn on Tyson’s Hillshire Farm label is misleading: not a single one of its farm animals is raised on pasture. Tyson Foods is driving the explosion of factory farming around the world.

Photo credit: Frances Gunn

Antibiotic resistance: 70-80% of all antibiotics in the U.S. are used in the industrial production of animals for food. These lifesaving drugs are routinely fed to animals that are not sick in order to speed up growth and prevent diseases that easily spread in crowded, filthy factory farms. Public health agencies have declared antibiotic resistance a top health threat in the U.S., and the rampant misuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture is the main culprit.[16] Even though Tyson enacted a policy that has it phasing out antibiotics for poultry in 2017, it has no such commitments for its beef and pork operations. Given that Tyson has the biggest US market share in poultry and beef (21% and 24%, respectively) and the third largest in pork (17%),[17] Tyson must do better.


70-80% of all antibiotics in the U.S. are used in the industrial production of animals for food.

Photo credit: Melkkarussell plant by Gunnar Richter

Tyson’s Impact on Animals

Animal rights abuses for Conflict Palm Oil: As with the previous points, there are many layers of abuse to uncover. Conflict Palm Oil in Hillshire products is driving extinction: expansion of Conflict Palm Oil is one of the greatest threats to the survival of many critically endangered species in Indonesia and Malaysia such as elephants, rhinos and orangutans.


Orangutan shackled in the Leuser Ecosystem of Sumatra, Indonesia. Baby orangutans are violently ripped away from their mothers to be sold into the pet trade after their rainforest home is destroyed to make way for industrial palm oil plantations. As forests continue to be destroyed for Conflict Palm Oil, they become fragmented, giving poachers easy access to orangutans and other species hunted for trade on the black market.

Photo credit: Carlos Quiles

Animal rights abuses for industrial meat: In Tyson Foods’ own facilities, undercover investigations have documented blatant abuse of animals. In a recent investigation, a Tyson supervisor at a chicken factory is documented standing on birds’ heads to kill them, telling other workers to do the same.[18] The footage documents workers punching and kicking birds, running them over with forklifts, swinging them around by their wings and violently slamming them into cages. These chickens never see sunlight or breath fresh air, and often suffer from crippling leg deformities. Before making it to the dinner plate, many chickens die slow, painful deaths from a number of diseases directly resulting from the filthy, overcrowded conditions of Tyson’s factory farms.


Captured with a hidden camera in a recent investigation, a Tyson supervisor at a chicken factory stands on live chicken’s head to kill it, telling other workers to do the same.

Photo credit: Mercy for Animals

Conflict Palm Oil in factory farms: While palm oil is largely used in food and household products, another product from the oil palm tree called palm kernel meal is often used as feed in commercial meat operations. Palm kernel meal is a commodity known for its cheap price and high cost to the environment, and feeding it to animals in factory farms is a double whammy for the climate. What’s more, corn and soy, in addition to palm kernel meal, are all common ingredients in animal feed, and are unhealthy for both the livestock forced to eat them and the planet.[19] Although Tyson Foods has a position statement on palm oil,[20] Tyson Foods does not have a policy in regards to its feed, and stands at risk of destroying the world’s forests for its animal feed.


Palm kernel meal is a commodity known for its cheap price and high cost to the environment, and feeding it to animals in factory farms is a double whammy for the climate. 

Photo credit: Agricultural Research Service, the research agency of the United States Department of Agriculture

Tyson’s Impact on the Planet

Deforestation risk: The livestock sector is a major driver of tropical deforestation globally.[21] Raising livestock and growing feed crops is the biggest driver of tropical deforestation in South America. In Brazil for instance, 75% of deforestation has been linked to the cattle industry.[22] Much of the rest is coming from the conversion of forests for soy production, which is then used in farm animal feed. Given that Tyson operates major beef production facilities in China and that Brazil is a major soy exporter to the country (more than 50% of the soy produced by Brazil is exported to China), there is a huge risk that Tyson is using soy in animal feed that is linked to deforestation. Tyson, a company that supplies to the likes of McDonald’s, Popeyes, and KFC (Yum Brands!),[23] should have a policy to address these risks for its global operations.


A soya plantation in Mato Grosso, Brazil.The conversion of forests for soy production, which is then used in livestock feed, is one of the reasons that the livestock sector is a leading driver of global deforestation and the #1 driver in South America.

Photo credit: Lou Dematteis

Water pollution and usage: In the U.S., Tyson pollutes more water than Cargill (the world’s largest privately owned company) and ExxonMobil (the world’s largest publicly traded international oil and gas company) put together.[24] Tyson’s pollution has been the subject of several legal challenges over the years, with the company paying more than $25 million in legal settlements and fines since 2001.[25] Most recently, the Attorney General of Missouri filed a lawsuit against Tyson Foods accusing the company of illegally discharging untreated wastewater that led to the death of up to 100,000 fish. Tyson settled with the state of Missouri in 2015 and agreed to pay $162,898 for natural resource damage, $110,000 in civil penalties, and reimbursed the Missouri Department of Conservation more than $36,000.[26]


In the U.S., Tyson pollutes more water than Cargill (the world’s largest privately owned company) and ExxonMobil (the world’s largest publicly traded international oil and gas company) put together. Earlier this year Waterkeeper Alliance and Environmental Working Group (EWG) released a map revealing the (many hidden) locations of more than 6,500 cattle, pig and chicken CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations), across the state of North Carolina Environmental Working Group (EWG).

Photo credit: Waterkeeper Alliance.

Climate Emissions: The global food system is responsible for roughly 30% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions––a major contributor for an increasingly unstable climate. These GHG emissions are produced largely by converting land for agricultural use, particularly from converting forest into farmland for industrial palm oil plantations or the production of feed crops, like soy and corn. Within the agricultural industry at large, the livestock sector is a major contributor to the emission of greenhouse gases, representing 14.5 percent of human-induced GHG emissions. In addition to that, tropical deforestation and forest degradation are responsible for around 15% of global GHG emissions; commercial agriculture, largely for export markets, is the primary driver of tropical deforestation. As a major company in the global food system, Tyson’s industrial cattle, chicken and pig operations, as well as the palm oil-laden products it markets, are taking a major toll on the climate.


Palm oil companies illegally burn forests to prepare land for plantations, emitting a thick haze of smoke that shuts down regional air traffic and provokes public health alerts in urban areas hundreds of miles away. Indonesia is the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gasses after the U.S. and China, with 85% of its emissions profile coming from rainforest and peatland degradation.

Photo credit: Paul Hilton.

Take Action

As a matter of urgency, parent company Tyson Foods and the companies it owns like Hillshire Brands Company, must adopt a responsible food policy with commitments on responsible production of two controversial commodities rampant in its supply chain––palm oil and meat. Tyson Foods is a laggard company with a weak palm oil commitment that relies solely on the inadequate Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) certification system and lacks requirements for suppliers to end destruction of rainforests, peatlands and abuse of human and labor rights. On meat, Tyson may have policies on environmental protection and the treatment of workers, but as we’ve seen, there is a huge gap between Tyson’s paper promises and its harmful practices.

Take Action today by joining RAN and allies around the world in calling on Tyson Foods to adopt a responsible food policy.


  1. Ceres. 2015. Tyson Sustainable Palm oil Reporting. http://www.ceres.org/investor-network/resolutions/tyson-sustainable-palm-oil-reporting
  2. http://www.etcgroup.org/sites/www.etcgroup.org/files/CartelBeforeHorse11Sep2013.pdf
  3. https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/food-blog/10-things-need-to-know-global-food-system

  4. http://www.usatoday.com/story/money/business/2015/04/15/247-wall-st-states-killing-animals/25807125/

  5. http://www.centerforsocialinclusion.org/ideas/food-systems/

  6. https://www.oxfamamerica.org/livesontheline/

  7. Tyson Foods Crime File: Violations from 2000-2016

  8. http://minorityrights.org/minorities/dayak/

  9. https://www.rainforest-rescue.org/topics/palm-oil#start

  10. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4963098/

  11. Broiler chickens are those raised for meat production

  12. USDA 1999. Vertical Coordination in the Pork and Broiler Industries: Implications for Pork and Chicken Products http://www.ers.usda.gov/media/491410/aer777b_1_.pdf as cited in https://www.farmaid.org/blog/fact-sheet/big-chicken-poultry-growers-fight-fairness/#1

  13. https://www.farmaid.org/issues/corporate-power/capitol-hill-quackery-congress-attacks-poultry-growers-again/

  14. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2014/09/16/the-decline-of-the-small-american-family-farm-in-one-chart/

  15. https://www.farmaid.org/blog/farmer-heroes/life-under-contract-poultry-farming-in-arkansas/

  16. http://www.foe.org/projects/food-and-technology/good-food-healthy-planet/chain-reaction

  17. http://s1.q4cdn.com/900108309/files/doc_presentations/2016/sept/TSN-Investor-Presentation-September-2016.pdf

  18. http://www.tysontorturesanimals.com/

  19. http://www.sustainabletable.org/260/animal-feed

  20. http://www.tysonfoods.com/media/position-statements/palm-oil

  21. http://ec.europa.eu/environment/forests/impact_deforestation.htm

  22. Bustamante, M. M. ET AL. (2012) Estimating greenhouse gas emissions from cattle raising in Brazil. Climatic Change, 115(3-4), 559-577

  23. Mercy for Animals. 2015. Alec Baldwin condemns Tyson Foods for Torturing animals. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qYKyCVkJqW8 

  24. The Huffington Post. 2016. Tyson Foods Could Very Well Be America’s Worst Water Polluter http://www.huffingtonpost.com/grub-street/tyson-foods-could-very-we_b_9413436.html
  25. Good Jobs First. 2016. Violation Tracker.  http://violationtracker.goodjobsfirst.org/parent/tyson-foods
  26. Truthout 2016. Tyson Foods Accused of Dumping More Poison Into Waterways Than Exxon, Dow and Koch http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/34810-tyson-foods-accused-of-dumping-more-poison-to-waterways-than-exxon-dow-and-koch