tyson food waste pollution
The sheer scale of the poison flowing into the country's rivers and waterways is starting to emerge after scientists took a look at one of America's biggest meat processors.

Tyson Foods released 87 billion gallons contaminated with cancer-causing cyanide, nitrates, chloride, phosphorous and oil directly from 41 plants into public waters across 17 states between 2018 and 2022.

The toxic water would cover 165 square kilometers to a depth of two meters and fill three Olympic-sized swimming pools every hour.

But the study by the Union of Concerned Scientists looked at just two percent of meat processing plants nationwide leaving the total figure terrifyingly uncertain.

tyson foods
The plant is one of Nebraska's top employers but situated just 500 feet from the Missouri River
The report's authors slam feeble federal regulation and state houses in the pocket of a 'Big Ag' which can pollute with impunity.

'As a multibillion-dollar company, Tyson can treat even hefty fines and penalties for polluting the environment as simply the cost of conducting business its way,' they wrote. 'This has to change.'

'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.'

Agriculture consumes more fresh water than any other human activity, and meat processors use nearly a third of that, leaving it awash with toxic chemicals, blood, feces, micro-organisms and pathogens including E. Coli and Enterococcus.

Comment: Some of these problems could be ameliorated by having smaller and better distributed farms and food processing plants, however governments - as we've seen with their concerted attacks on small farmers - are working towards the exact opposite: Number of US farms in decline, average farm size increasing

Fifteen states suffer drinking water with higher than permitted levels of nitrates which lead to blood disorders and brain defects in infants, and have been estimated to cause up to 300 cases of cancer a year in Iowa alone.

Half of the contaminants found in the study were dumped into the waters of Missouri, Illinois and Nebraska, including 8,000 tons from Tyson's biggest plant at Dakota City, just 500 feet from the Missouri river.

'This Tyson plant helped put me through college and supports a lot of migrant workers,' Rogelio Rodriguez of Conservation Nebraska told the Guardian.

'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.

'If regulations are lax, corporations have a tendency to push limits to maximize profits, we learnt that during Covid.'

Across Nebraska the firm's five largest plants released more than 55,000 tons of pollutants, including 2,000 tons of nitrates.

Once in the waterways the toxic discharges join the chemical run-off from fields fertilized by the state's highly consolidated agriculture sector and start to make their way downstream.

Algae thrive on the chemical mix, sucking oxygen out of the water, killing fish and creating 'dead zones' all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico.

But they also affect the human population, increasing cases of pneumonia, bronchitis, and asthma among people living nearby.

The effect is compounded by the 7,600 tons of bacteria leaving the factories which feast on the oxygen previously available in the rivers and lakes.

'With this biological load compounding the oxygen-depleting effects of its nitrogen and phosphorous pollution, Tyson is truly sucking the life out of aquatic habitats,' the report's authors wrote.

The 90-year-old company sits on the Fortune 100 index and earned $53 billion in 2023, operating brands including Jimmy Dean, Hillshire Farm, Ball Park, and Wright Brand, and supplying outlets including KFC, Taco Bell, McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's and Walmart.

It was fined $2million in 2018 by the Department of Justice after more than 100,000 fish were killed by a discharge of ammonia at Clear Creek in Missouri, and it paid $3 million to settle a lawsuit in 2021 over the death of 200,000 fish in Alabama's Black Warrior River.

But the fine amounted just 0.006 percent of the $47.05 billion it received in revenue that year.

Comment: It's because of scandals like this that Russia has enacted the following: Russia to block profits of companies that destroy environment, follows $2bn fine for mining giant over fuel spill

'Tyson has vast wealth at its disposal, so it can withstand even multimillion-dollar pollution penalties,' the report notes.

Chlorides are corrosive and the impact from Tyson's biggest single discharge is felt on the pipes and systems of water infrastructure itself.

Sulfates meanwhile are responsible for intestinal and stomach diseases in those exposed to too many.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) publishes data on toxic discharges from just 300 of the 7,000 meat factories across the US.

It agreed to update its regulations after a lawsuit by environmental groups and is expected to roll out its new rules in September next year.

But it has said it is minded to opt for the weakest option on the table which critics claim will still allow billions of gallons of toxic waste to flow unchecked into the nation's waters.

'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 of 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.'

'We can be sure Tyson and other big ag players will object to efforts to update pollution regulations,' said report co-author Omanjana Goswami.

'But the EPA should listen to communities whose wells, lakes, rivers and streams have been contaminated and put people over corporate profits.'

Tyson alone employs 125,000 people in the US, and the North American Meat Institute said thousands of jobs will be lost if existing regulation is made any tighter.

'Meat and poultry companies spend hundreds of millions of dollars to comply with EPA's effluent limitations guidelines,' said spokeswoman Sarah Little.

'EPA's new proposed guidelines will cost over $1bn and will eliminate 100,000 jobs in rural communities.'


NEBRASKA 111,217,776 30%
ILLINOIS 52,725,438 14%
MISSOURI 48,645,111 13%
MICHIGAN 43,851,686 12%
PENNSYLVANIA 38,176,081 10%
ARKANSAS 37,740,229 10%
TEXAS 8,905,760 2%
WISCONSIN 8,886,707 2%
VIRGINIA 5,214,170 1%
IOWA 5,211,410 1%
MISSISSIPPI 3,514,900 1%
ALABAMA 3,385,063 1%
OKLAHOMA 1,942,250 1%
TENNESSEE 1,515,655 >0%
GEORGIA 356,917 >0%
KENTUCKY 241,006 >0%
NORTH CAROLINA 192,645 >0%

The EPA calculates that around half of US rivers and more than a third of lakes are too polluted to safely swim or fish in
, with agriculture among the top sources of contamination.

Nearly one million people in California alone are at risk of long-term disease from drinking water contaminated with arsenic and nitrates, according to a 2022 report by the state's Water Resources Control Board.

And some of America's rarest animals are also threatened including the 500 wild whooping cranes which stop during their migration at a bend of the Platte River less than two miles from Tyson's slaughterhouse and beef processing plant in Lexington, Missouri.

The country's tallest birds had to cope with 11,500 tons of pollutants emitted into the local waters by the plant in the five years from 2018.

'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 aquatic ecologist George Cunningham of the Sierra Club Nebraska.

'Poor environmental regulation is down to the stranglehold industrial agriculture has on politics - at every level. It's about political capture.'

And concern is rising among those living next to the tributary.

'When I was young, there wasn't that (many) people with cancer. Now it's wild,' said Platte Center's water operator Andrew Greisen.

'Prostate cancer, breast cancer and brain cancer, just everything. I just think it's got to be the food we're eating or the water we're drinking,' he told the Flatwater Free Press website.

A Chinese-born reporter for the website was accused of being as 'Communist', by State Governor Jim Pillen when she grilled him about emissions from his hog farms last year.

And last month the Nebraska Supreme Court said the state's Department of Environment and Energy was entitled to charge the website $44,000 to see its emails containing the words nitrate, nutrient, fertilizer or nitrogen.

'The big money spent on lobbying and campaigns by corporate agriculture has played a major role in resisting stronger regulation,' Gavin Geis of the Common Cause Nebraska told the Guardian.

'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.'

The fight over the new EPA regulations is also well underway in DC and Tyson contributed nearly half the $4.3m spent by the meat processing industry on lobbying in the capital in 2023.

The report's authors claim that federal intervention is the only way to break the sector's stranglehold over local communities and state legislatures.

'The good news is that the federal government has the power to limit the influence of mega corporations through antitrust regulations that target monopolies,' they wrote.

'Congress must better address consolidation in the meat and poultry industry and the power it gives companies to pollute without fear of consequences.

'In a new five-year food and farm bill, Congress should incorporate proposals such as the Farm System Reform Act — which would strengthen the US Department of Agriculture's ability to crack down on the monopolistic practices of meatpackers including Tyson Foods.'

Comment: In our time it's reasonable to view any proposed reforms to farming as highly suspect.

Nebraska farmer Graham Christensen said his neighbors' future now hangs on a national effort.

'We've created a system with no accountability that doesn't protect our ecosystem - which includes the land, water and people of Nebraska,' he said.

'The political capture is harming our rural communities, we're in the belly of the beast and need help from federal regulators.'

A spokesman for Tyson Foods said they use a 'robust management system to mitigate environmental risks and impact'.

'We strive to run our operations as responsible stewards of our natural resources,' they added.

'We consistently monitor effluent from our facilities, and we work closely with our federal and state regulators, as well as our local municipalities, as we plan, design, and operate our wastewater systems.

This report does not acknowledge our ongoing compliance with EPA regulations and certification by the Water Alliance for our strong water management practices.

'Our longstanding treatment program protects the environment and the interests of water across our nation, along with ensuring resiliency of the food system.'