Tyson Foods adopts video audits to monitor animal welfare

Last week, Tyson Foods announced new initiatives intended to improve the welfare of its chickens and other livestock, marking the latest in a series of steps the company has taken to address its animal welfare practices after revelations several years ago of cruel treatment at Tyson’s and other meat producers’ facilities.

Tyson Foods representatives characterize the developments as part of an "ongoing journey" for the company. "Improving the well-being of the animals in our care is a journey and these initiatives are the latest examples of our leadership in this important area," said Justin Whitmore, chief sustainability officer for Tyson Foods. "We’re also piloting other potential innovations as we become the world’s most sustainable producer of protein."

A growing trend?

Shareholder pressure on meat producers to improve their animal welfare practices has intensified in recent years, according to data from the Sustainable Investments Institute, particularly after a 2014 NBC News investigation aired undercover video footage showing graphic abuse of piglets at a Tyson contract farm. Tyson subsequently implemented reforms to its policies, asking suppliers to use more humane slaughter methods and larger cages. Regarding the company’s latest announcement, Whitmore said, "It relates less to shareholder pressure than to events that we’ve seen in the past both at Tyson and other companies’ facilities."

One of Tyson Foods’ most recently announced initiatives may help to prevent such issues going forward. The company unveiled a third-party remote video auditing (RVA) system to help monitor live bird handling. Covering 33 poultry plants, Tyson said its RVA program is the largest in the United States. According to the company’s most recent annual report, Tyson owns 44 chicken processing plants, and its chicken production facilities — which it does not break down by number of plants — have a weekly capacity of 39 million animals.

Under the RVA system, trained off-site auditors analyze video from cameras in Tyson Foods’ chicken plants and provide data feedback weekly and monthly to plant management. The company is also launching an RVA pilot project to assess on-farm catching of birds for transport to processing facilities. Third-party auditors will analyze video for adherence to safety procedures and humane treatment of animals, allowing immediate follow-up if any concerns are identified.

In response to a question asking whether Tyson Foods would release its video footage to the public in the event of any future allegations of cruelty or mistreatment, Whitmore said, "Transparency, systematically, must increase across our industry, and Tyson intends to be a player in pushing the envelope about what we do and how we do it. We are open to all options for transparency, but we cannot commit at this time to releasing video footage from our RVA system."

Transparency in the animal husbandry and meat processing industry has become a matter of intense controversy in recent years, as state laws known as ag-gag bills make it a crime to film or photograph animal agriculture without the owner’s permission. Such laws would have criminalized the 2014 footage that revealed abuses at Tyson’s contract form, which played a role in prompting reforms at Tyson Foods and the industry as a whole. When asked if Tyson Foods opposed ag-gag bills, Tyson’s senior director of external communications, Gary Mickelson, said in an emailed statement: "Tyson Foods has not politically advocated or financially supported so-called ag gag legislation." January research from the Sustainable Investments Institute (paywall) found that Tyson Foods does not:

list trade association memberships, dues paid to trade associations or the amount of company funds used by those associations for political and lobbying expenditures.

Tyson Foods has cut back on its lobbying disclosures compared to previous years, removing much of its policy on trade association activity and a former list of trade association memberships. This runs counter to the trend of most S&P 500 companies and others in the Consumer Staples sector — where firms are adopting more comprehensive policies and providing more detailed information.

Slaughter methods

Tyson’s newly announced initiatives include two pilot programs set to launch within the next year to test a process called controlled atmosphere stunning (CAS). CAS is a method for slaughtering animals by placing them in a container in which the atmosphere lacks oxygen and consists of an asphyxiant gas (argon, nitrogen, and/or carbon dioxide), causing the animals to lose consciousness.

Scientists and animal welfare advocates, including PETA, support CAS as a more humane way to render chickens unconscious before processing, as it eliminates live bird handling. Temple Grandin, professor of animal science at Colorado State University and a member of Tyson Foods’ Animal Well-Being Advisory Panel, has studied CAS and found it to have welfare advantages. The practice is much more prevalent in the United Kingdom and the European Union than in the United States, where producers have been slow to adopt CAS.

Tyson Foods will evaluate the results of the pilot program to determine if CAS is a reasonable alternative to the existing method before it makes decisions about deploying it at other facilities. Tyson’s competitor, Perdue, announced a year ago that it would use CAS for its chicken slaughter, in part as a response to growing consumer demand for better slaughterhouse practices.

According to the Humane Society of the United States, major retailers increasingly give preference to suppliers that employ CAS. KFC Canada exclusively sources birds killed via CAS, and Wendy’s, Chipotle Mexican Grill, Whole Foods Market and Bon Appetit Management, among others, source such birds, although not yet exclusively. Whitmore noted, "Some [Tyson Foods] customers are reaching out to understand what the technology is, what the implications are, does the process produce better outcomes for the animals as well as a high-quality product. If the pilots go well, we would expect to see the demand increase."

Tyson Foods’ recent initiatives are part of the company’s expanding efforts to advance animal well-being policies and programs in its operations, reflecting what appears to be a slow but growing trend to improve the conditions under which U.S. livestock live and die. According to Grandin, "Animal welfare is part science, part compassion, and it requires management commitment to learning, training and constant monitoring."