Tyson Foods Investigation Exposes Myth of Free-Range Chicken

An undercover investigator found water shortages and "free-range" chickens that never see the outside.

Animal Outlook

Reported Food Industry

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It’s been a bad few months for Tyson Foods. The company is slashing 10 percent of its workforce and shuttering two poultry plants. On top of that, share prices have plummeted. 

Now, America’s largest chicken company is the subject of a months-long undercover investigation led by the advocacy group Animal Outlook. An undercover investigator recorded hours of video that appears to show animal abuse and rotting chicken and rat carcasses at a Tyson Foods supplier in Virginia. 

What’s more, the investigator recorded a representative for Tyson apparently admitting that “free-range” chickens never see the outside. 

Filmed between August and November 2022 by an undercover investigator, the video appears to show the following: 

  • dead chicks in a house with a water supply that is out of their reach
  • a chicken with an open head wound 
  • rat corpses
  • bug-infested chicken feed 
  • a chick having its neck twisted by a worker 
  • a chicken body without a head

The investigator said one feed shortage lasted almost 52 hours and the video alleges that a chicken’s head was ripped off by a worker, although the decapitation is not shown. 

The Myth of Free-Range Chicken

In 2018, Tyson acquired the Smart Chicken brand, which sells meat labeled as organic and free range — raised without cages and with ample access to outdoor pastures, according to the Smart Chicken website.

Yet in the video, the person identified as the farm manager by the NGO is heard to say: “And I don’t see how they do the free-range chickens outside.” In response, the person identified as the Tyson representative replies: “Those birds don’t go outside. You know that. … That is strictly for commercial purposes.” She adds that breeder birds, rather than broiler or meat birds, are used for Tyson commercials because they are “way prettier than the broilers … .”

Tyson Foods’ Animal Welfare Record

The U.S. chicken industry kills around 7 billion chickens per year — and Tyson is an industry leader, killing 47,000,000 chickens per week in 2022.

On its website, Tyson says it has a “moral and ethical obligation” to conduct “proper animal handling” and that “[c]aring about animals is inherent to who we are as a company.” The company further claims to have “zero tolerance for animal abuse.” 

In an email to Sentient Media, a spokesperson for Tyson Foods indicated the company has since parted ways with the Virginia supplier, and that it had “identified animal welfare practices at this farm that violated our policies and standards.” The spokesperson went on to write that since “January 2023, no Tyson Foods birds have been placed on this farm and the farmer no longer has a contract to grow for Tyson Foods.”

Yet, according to Animal Outlook, Tyson had worked with the farm for seven years, and knew about the poor conditions. Despite that, they sent “150,000 birds to endure immense suffering on the facility anyway.” 

Tyson did not answer questions about how free range its chickens are. 

Discussions in the video include one about “fucked up” birds that don’t move and another where a worker blames Tyson for not delivering feed and a fourth about “fresh rat activity”.

In January 2022, seven months before the video was filmed, Virginia’s environment department warned poultry keepers that avian flu had been detected in wild birds and encouraged “all poultry farmers to enhance their biosecurity.” 

Yet in another part of the video, a plastic tray that could be used to disinfect boots is seen to be empty. 

Birds Raised at Former Tyson Supplier Deprived of Water

The video’s release follows news earlier this month of steep second quarter losses at Tyson and a cut in sales forecasts due to a reported slowdown in consumer demand. Tyson Food shares dropped 16 percent in value following the announcements, hitting a three-year low.

News of the company’s business difficulties were preceded by more shocking headlines in November last year, as Tyson’s chief financial officer and the son of the company’s chairman, John R. Tyson, was arrested for drunkenly entering a woman’s house.

To offset the recent losses, Tyson announced that it would close two chicken operations — a slaughterhouse, broiler and hatching facility in Glen Allen, Virginia and a slaughterhouse in Van Buren, Arkansas — resulting in more than 1,600 job losses.

Tyson Shutting Down Facilities Amid Losses

In an interview with Sentient Media, the owner of the chicken farm, Amir Saeed, confirmed he had worked with Tyson for seven years, that the farm held a total of about 150,000 chickens, and said Tyson had complained about the farm’s management. Asked how often he visited the farm, Saeed said about once a week.

Saeed would not comment on the abuses shown in the video but said 73 farms in the area, including his, were shuttered as part of Tyson’s Glen Allen area shut down. Although Saeed’s farm closed two months earlier than Tyson’s 12 May deadline, he said the early closure was because he had no chicks, rather than abuse allegations. 

Responding to the food and water shortage accusations, Saeed said there “was never a water issue” and that although “Tyson might be delayed with feed … there was never a complete food shortage.”

Asked about the future, Saeed said he and other chicken farmers in the area would explore suing Tyson “if there is something legitimate to sue them for.”

“A lot of people are going after Tyson, because they lost their livelihood, that’s what happened for at least 73 families,” he said. “All the local people are impacted.” 

Animal Outlook has previously documented cruelty at Tyson contracted facilities in Virginia, in 2016 and 2017. In an email the NGO said its new investigation shows that “conditions and practices at the [Tyson] facility rise to the level of criminal animal cruelty” and that it is “seeking charges against a number of potential defendants, including Tyson,” and the farm’s owner and manager.

The videos speak for themselves, said Cheryl Leahy, Animal Outlook’s director. “The day-to-day suffering of these birds is palpable,” she said, but, “Tyson delivered birds, year after year … [leaving no doubt] that cruelty in animal agriculture is not limited to isolated incidents, it is systemic. We can’t have a legal system that works if billion-dollar companies can profit from systemic cruelty and operate outside the law.”

Tyson’s email added that it was “disturbed by what we saw in the video” and that although it does not “own this farm and the workers involved are not our employees, we expect the farmers who contract with us to meet or exceed Tyson Foods’ expectations for animal welfare, comply with applicable federal, state and local laws, and treat animals with appropriate care.”

The email said that Tyson is “working directly” with people affected by the Virginia and Arkansas closures “to help ensure they have the option to apply for open positions at other Tyson Foods facilities and relocation assistance with financial incentives up to $15,000.” For those who choose not to relocate, Tyson said it had made “resources available to them in their local community, including coordinating a job fair with more than 73 potential employers and businesses where 250 team members found employment.”

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