Global food giant Tyson Foods is releasing its first comprehensive sustainability update since the 2014 acquisition of Hillshire Brands. The report will be released in five weekly segments that began with Wednesday’s (March 16) announcement regarding its animal well-being efforts.
“Our newest report shows we’re committed to being more transparent about how we do business and our desire for continuous improvement,” said Leigh Ann Johnston, director of sustainability for Tyson Foods. “We’re providing more details – from how we’re reducing antibiotic use and auditing animal well-being on farms to our management of water and workplace safety – than ever before. We recognize that today’s consumers expect access to a new level of information so they know the food they buy is produced responsibly.”
Future segments of the report will address corporate giving, environmental stewardship, product development and workforce.
The animal well-being segment issued Wednesday provided more information on the Tyson FarmCheck program, which involves on-farm, third party animal well-being audits. Tyson’s update showed zero instances of animal abuse witnessed during its routine FarmCheck audits. Tyson said chicken farms received an overall score of 94%, while hog farms scored 88% and cattle farms 84%. Tyson also admitted in the update four incidents in 2015 where contract farmers or employees violated company well-being policy. Tyson said it worked with 9,700 contract farmers and it employs 113,000 in its total operations. The report also said Tyson is not satisfied with less than 100% in its FarmCheck audits.
“Fiscal 2015 was a year of progress for Tyson Foods but was not without challenges,” said Dr. Christine Daugherty, vice president of Sustainable Food Production for Tyson Foods. “We’re humble enough to admit we’re not perfect and are working every day to strengthen our commitment to making sure the animals we depend on are treated properly.”
In August Tyson Foods said it severed ties with Dukedom, Tenn.-based T&S Farms after undercover video showed workers abusing chickens.
“Animal well-being is a priority at our company and we will not tolerate the unacceptable animal treatment shown in this video,” Tyson Spokesman Gary Mickelson said in a statement at the time. “We’re especially concerned about the inappropriate methods used to euthanize sick and injured chickens … We are terminating the farmer’s contract to grow chickens for us.”
In July, Mercy for Animals released an undercover video taken at the Delaware poultry operation of McGinnis Farms that showed acts of animal abuse and poor living conditions on one of Tyson Foods contract grow farms. Tyson responded to those claims by saying this was not a typical situation. Tyson said at the time the video was shot birds portrayed in video were culled for respiratory illnesses and were not part of the normal operation.
Also last year Tyson pledged to eliminate the use of human antibiotics in its broiler chicken flocks by the end of September 2017.
“Antibiotic resistant infections are a global health concern,” said Donnie Smith, president and CEO of Tyson Foods. “We’re confident our meat and poultry products are safe, but want to do our part to responsibly reduce human antibiotics on the farm so these medicines can continue working when they’re needed to treat illness. … Given the progress we’ve already made reducing antibiotics in our broilers, we believe it’s realistic to shoot for zero by the end of our 2017 fiscal year. But we won’t jeopardize animal well-being just to get there. We’ll use the best available treatments to keep our chickens healthy, under veterinary supervision.”
Of the chicks placed on farms by Tyson Foods during fiscal 2015, only 6.3% of chickens were treated with human antibiotics. However, the report notes that because of constraints in Tyson’s supply chain, it purchased feed that includes human antibiotics from another poultry company at one location, and it purchased a limited number of chicks from a breeding company that received an injection while inside the egg that includes a small amount of antibiotic to prevent infection in the embryo. If these factors were excluded, the total number of Tyson Foods chickens raised without human antibiotics for fiscal 2015 is 93.7%.
“We believe that through continued improvement in such areas as housing, sanitation and the use of probiotics, we can continue to improve bird health and reduce the need for human antibiotics,” said Daugherty.
In 2015, Tyson Foods also began forming working groups with independent farmers, feedlot operators and others to discuss ways to reduce the use of human antibiotics on cattle, hog and turkey farms. The company also offers consumers the option of chicken, beef and pork from animals raised without antibiotics. Tyson said in the update that it met with cattle and hog supplier groups two times in 2015 to discuss possible antibiotic model and use. Tyson did not hold meetings with turkey growers on reducing antibiotics in production because of the avian influenza outbreak in turkeys.
The steps are seen as positive steps in the right direction but there is work to do. The National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) reports that 80% of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. are used on cattle, pigs, poultry and other livestock, the vast majority to speed up growth and compensate for crowded, and often unsanitary conditions. The Center for Disease Control weighed in on antibiotic resistance risks in its “Antibiotic Resistance Threats” issued in 2013.
“Up to half of antibiotic use in humans and much of antibiotic use in animals is unnecessary and inappropriate and makes everyone less safe,” the CDC noted.
Jonathan Kaplan of the NRDC said the poultry industry has relied on a loophole in the Food and Drug Administration guidelines that the allows for medically important antibiotics to prevent disease with no real limit on how much or how often the drugs can be administered. He said growing consumer demand for no-antibiotic-ever foods are prompting companies like McDonald’s, Chick-Fil-A and Panera to comply. Tyson Foods supplies chicken to those and most other chain restaurants across the U.S.
Tyson said it is also allowing the installation of third-party remote video auditing of live bird handling at its U.S. chicken plants in an effort to provide more transparency. It also plans to provide additional annual training for farmers who raise chickens for the company.