These four big meat companies are the absolute worst when it comes to environmental damage and health concerns.
Avoiding meat has never been more mainstream. The numbers of vegans and vegetarians are on the rise in the United States, making up 2% and 5% of the country’s population, respectively.
Additionally, even more Americans nowadays are willing to at least cut back on their meat intake or try meat substitutes like seitan. A poll from Gallup found that close to one in four Americans tend to eat less meat now than in the past, and the size of the U.S. meat substitute market has reached one and a half billion dollars.
So, what gives? Why are so many people beginning to seriously reconsider their salad-to-steak ratio? No single reason can fully answer that question, but it appears multiple factors are at play. There are, of course, health concerns linked to consuming too much meat. Eating ribeye every night for dinner probably isn’t the best plan for your cardiovascular health. But reservations over meat consumption run far deeper than just personal health worries for many. Simply put, the business of meat is messy.
From environmental to health concerns
The meat industry is linked to a litany of concerning environmental problems like deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions. It takes an incredible amount of both land and crops to support a meat plant. For instance, large portions of the Amazon rainforest have been destroyed to support Europe and America’s demand for affordable meat.
The overuse of antibiotics is another major concern. For decades, livestock has routinely been given tons of antibiotics for any number of reasons (avoid disease, reach a larger size, etc.) and a growing number of scientists are now raising concerns about how such practices are likely fueling antibiotic resistance in humans, thanks to the spread of antibiotic-resistant disease from livestock.
The uncomfortable truth about the meat industry is the more you look into it, the more likely you are to lose your appetite. The business side of the meat game is equally as unappetizing. A handful of companies enjoy an absolute stranglehold on the U.S. meat market.
For example, according to the 2021 Chain Reaction Report, just four meat producers account for over 80% of the U.S. beef supply. None of those companies (Tyson, JBS, Cargill, and National Beef Packing) publicly divulge the amount of antibiotics they use on their livestock, and none have halted routine antibiotic use across feedlots.
Putting employees in harm’s way
Starting to reconsider your stance on tofu? We haven’t even touched on how these companies treat their employees yet.
Bombshell findings just released by the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis reports all four of those major meat producers (plus Smithfield Foods) “engaged in a concerted effort with Trump Administration political officials” to block pandemic worker protections. Behind closed doors these companies unscrupulously did everything they could to ensure workers kept reporting for duty regardless of the viral risks. The report notes that in 2020 alone over 59,000 employees across those five meat companies contracted COVID-19.
“When just a handful of companies control the market, it creates a system ripe for the abuse of farmers, meat processing workers, and consumers with little accountability,” says Karen Perry Stillerman, senior analyst for the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Here’s a more detailed run-down of some of the worst practices among America’s largest meat producers.
The largest privately held company in the entire country, Cargill was notoriously named the “worst company in the world” in 2019 by environmental advocacy group Mighty Earth.
What earned Cargill such a distinct dishonor? The more appropriate answer may be what didn’t. Damaging ecosystems, allegations of profiting off of child labor, and ranking as a top 10 U.S. food industry polluter (lead, asbestos, mercury, etc.) are just a few examples of Cargill’s dark side.
“Mighty Earth runs campaigns around the globe to advocate for sustainable business practices, and Cargill kept showing up when our investigations identified bad actors. Whether we were working on palm oil in Southeast Asia, cocoa farming in West Africa, or soy cultivation in South America, Cargill was always there, ready to thwart progress and impede joint conservation efforts,” explains former congressman and Mighty Earth Chairman Henry Waxman in the report.
Regarding the actual quality of meat, Cargill has a similarly concerning track record. For instance, a Pulitzer prize-winning 2009 New York Times investigation found that Cargill’s own negligence led to a 2007 E. coli outbreak affecting 845,000 pounds of ground beef. More recently, another 78 tons of contaminated Cargill beef caused an E. coli outbreak in 2018.
“Cargill has only gotten away with its bad behavior for so long because it is not a consumer-facing brand. But if folks knew the food they get at McDonald’s, Stop & Shop, or Target was destroying the rainforests or had been produced with child slavery, they’d be shocked,” adds Mat Jacobson, Senior Director for Forests at Mighty Earth, in a press release.
Brazilian meat company JBS is considered the biggest meatpacker on the planet. According to its 2017 Annual Stability Report, JBS’s global meat customers include Outback Steakhouse, KFC, Pizza Hut, McDonald’s, and Burger King.
Generally, speaking, JBS slaughters over 76,000 cows and over 13 million chickens on a daily basis. You’ve undoubtedly eaten their meat products before, but you may not have heard about the litany of scandals linked to JBS.
In 2017 JBS had to pay a record-setting fine of $3.2 billion. What could have possibly warranted a fine like that? The meatpacker had been bribing Brazilian officials to look the other way regarding numerous violations like selling rotten meat, falsified export documents, and meat plants not up to code.
JBS’s environmental impact is similarly troubling. Amnesty International reported in 2020 that the company continues to work with farms illegally logging the Amazon. Per Mighty Earth, JBS is responsible for 42,538 hectares of Brazilian deforestation. That’s about half the size of New York City.
JBS also explicitly allows the preventive use of antibiotics in their beef. Curiously, while JBS mandates that suppliers track antibiotic use, they do not flat out say the suppliers share that information with them. JBS also does not publicly display specific data on antibiotic use.
National Beef Packing Company
National Beef Packing Co. is another top meat producer plagued by many of the same self-inflicted problems as the other companies on this list: A lack of transparency, dragging their feet regarding environmental issues, and an apparent disregard for worker safety.
Right off the bat, National Beef has made no public commitment whatsoever to reduce or even simply track all of the antibiotics used in its cattle. To be fair, however, the company does promote some beef products as being raised without antibiotics. According to Consumer Reports, National Beef uses antibiotics on their livestock to prevent disease and promote growth. The company is also known to use other drugs (hormones, steroids) to promote livestock growth as well.
Meanwhile, recent research out of New York University published in the scientific journal Climatic Change revealed National Beef is far from thrilled about reducing its greenhouse gas emissions. According to the study, National Beef has made statements in the past (either in an SEC form or within a quarterly report) “linking climate change regulation with potentially harming their profitability.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic first unfolded in March of 2020, National Beef offered U.S. plant employees a $2/hour raise. By the end of April, the company was offering a $500 weekly bonus to workers with perfect attendance. Per the SSCC’s new report, around this time, National Beef management even discussed how to best handle infected employees’ return to work (with a doctor’s approval) after recovering from COVID-19. Internal emails reveal managers suggested avoiding explicitly notifying staff by making such announcements “line meeting style,” or very informally among small groups, so as to hopefully avoid “inciting additional panic.”
National Beef Packing Company’s meat goods are used by restaurants like The Cheesecake Factory and Johnny Rockets. Its brands, such as Certified Angus Beef, are also carried by many grocery stores including ShopRite and Winn-Dixie.
It’s hard to truly rank these companies, as each of the scandals discussed so far are abhorrent in their unique way. That being said, we just may have saved the worst for last.
On an annual basis, the UCS estimates Tyson processes about six million head of cattle, 22 million hogs, and close to two billion (!) chickens. As you can probably surmise, all that meat means a whole lot of waste. Let’s take 2017 for example: In just the state of Arkansas alone, Tyson produced roughly 49.6 billion pounds of waste.
The insane amount of animal feed required to support all of Tyson’s livestock demands 9-10 million acres of cropland. That means Tyson’s farms contribute to soil erosion and water pollution across an overall area roughly twice the size of New Jersey!
While Tyson did lay out a set of self-proclaimed sustainability goals back in 2018, as of 2021 they had only enrolled a mere 408,000 acres of their land in sustainable agriculture pilot programs. They had originally said they would reach two million acres by 2020. This date has subsequently been pushed back to 2025.
Recent years have also seen Tyson strongly resist calls for more company-wide transparency regarding worker rights and abuses.
As far as antibiotics, Tyson has banned antibiotics in their chickens but places no restrictions (outside the existing law) on antibiotics for their cattle.
Tyson supplies chicken for major fast-food chains including KFC, Burger King, McDonald’s, and Taco Bell. Tyson Chicken can also be found in numerous grocery stores such as Stop & Shop, Publix, and Walmart.
“As the nation’s largest meat and poultry producer, Tyson Foods is a prime example of what can happen when a giant corporation is allowed to run rampant and consolidate its power. With a business model that puts its workers at risk of illness and injury, pollutes communities with billions of pounds of animal waste, resists accountability for its environmental impact, and lines the pockets of its executives and shareholders at the expense of consumers and farmers, Tyson spells trouble for all of us,” Perry Stillerman explains.