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May 18, 2012

Shortly After Cruelty Allegations, Tyson Foods Calls for Pizza Party

After first denying connection to the factory farm, Tyson Foods severed its relationship with Wyoming Premium Farms after an HSUS investigation documented appalling cruelty to pigs. A spokesman for the world’s second-largest meat producer publicly declared that the treatment of the animals was “deplorable.” Good for Tyson Foods.

But a somewhat less public announcement provides perhaps a more telling insight into the company’s actual thoughts about animal welfare. We got a look at a memo this week from Tyson executives encouraging its employees to join a pizza party—an idea cooked up by other leaders in the pork industry—to celebrate the decision by Domino’s pizza to reject a shareholder proposal to urge the company to stop buying pork from farms that confine sows in gestation crates.

Pigs in gestation crates at Wyoming Premium Farms
The HSUS
Sows in gestation crates at Wyoming Premium Farms.

With McDonald’sBurger KingWendy’sSafeway, Denny’s, and others having made pledges to cleanse their supply chain of pork from operations relying on gestationcrates, it didn’t seem like an outlandish ask.  But Domino’s didn’t go for it and chose to continue to support gestation crates

It wasn’t surprising to us. But it was a cause for jubilant—if disproportionate—celebration within the pork industry.  They’ve been looking for any port in the storm. The industry has been buffeted on the shoals not just because its major corporate customers are demanding changes in production practices, but also because of the series of adverse publicity associated with these announcements. It’s hard to find anyone outside of the pork industry who thinks that imprisoning sows in these crates is okay these days. 

At some level, you can understand why Tyson executives are so happy with the Domino’s decision. The company, best known for its chicken sales and production, is big into pig production. And unlike other leading companies in the sector, including Smithfield Foods, Cargill, and Hormel, which have made commitments to move away from gestation crate confinement, Tyson has done nothing of the sort. The vast majority of its sows are confined in gestation crates. 

But after the pizza party at headquarters is over, there’s another matter that Tyson Foods must contend with. And that’s the complaint HSUS filed this week with the Securities and Exchange Commission accusing Tyson of misleading customers about its animal care policies. Our complaint has a lot to say about how the company’s rhetoric and its suppliers’ actual treatment of pigs are way out of step.

I, for one, was haunted by the abuse of the pigs at WPF. But I thought that the footage of the pigs going mad in their gestation crates was just as troubling as the workers kicking around piglets like soccer balls or jumping on pigs with broken legs. The whole thing suggested a detachment from the suffering of animals. And Tyson officials—and this is what unsettles me most—think part of that picture that came out of WPF was just fine.

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