Nina Lakhani bio
Nina Lakhani has reported from over a dozen countries including six and a half years freelancing in Central America and Mexico where she focussed on forced migration, the consequences of the war on drugs, state sponsored violence, corruption, and impunity, gender violence, environmental defenders and the battle for natural resources. Before journalism she was a mental health nurse. She is currently a senior correspondent for the Guardian US based in New York.
In this episode
Colleen talks to Rebecca and Nina about
- why near-monopolies are bad for the economy and for the communities surrounding them
- the conditions in and around Tyson Foods chicken processing facilities
- the environmental impacts of consolidation
Timing and cues
Welcome (0:00 - 0:21)
Intro (0:21 - 1:53)
Interview part 1 (1:53 - 16:46)
Break (16:46 - 17:38)
Interview part 2 (17:38 - 28:19)
Outro (28:19 - 29:00)
Editing: Colleen MacDonald
Additional editing and music: Brian Middleton
Research and writing: Pamela Worth
Executive producer: Rich Hayes
Host: Colleen MacDonald
Colleen: Today’s interview weaves in a few threads I’ve been noticing in public conversations over the past year or more… in the news, on Twitter, and among my friends and colleagues.
One of those threads is the ever-increasing power of corporations, and the greed that seems to go hand-in-hand with that power. As the rich and powerful become richer and more powerful, it seems like they take ever more drastic measures to hold onto that status… which ends up being bad for the rest of us.
Another thread is about the unsustainable conditions of many jobs in the United States—no sick leave, no vacation, no childcare for working parents… and sometimes, not even bathroom breaks. It’s possible that these conditions, along with the pandemic, have led to labor shortages across the US.
Injustice at the workplace, labor rights, inequality… each of these issues converge in a new joint investigation from the Union of Concerned Scientists and news organization The Guardian. The leads on this investigation, my colleague Rebecca Boehm, a senior economist, and Nina Lakhani, a journalist with The Guardian, took a close look at one company that weaves these threads together in a very ugly tapestry of abuse, exploitation, near-monopolistic practices, and dangerous conditions.
Put down your chicken nuggets. It’s time to talk about Tyson Foods.
Colleen: Rebecca, Nina, welcome to the podcast.
Nina: Thanks for having me.
Rebecca: Thank you for having me, Colleen.
Colleen: Yeah, it's great to have you both here. So, Rebecca, you authored a recent report calling out Tyson Foods for its monopoly-like power in Arkansas that puts workers at risk, threatens public health, and pollutes our air and water. And Nina, you did some investigative reporting on the ground in Arkansas for an article in "The Guardian." So Rebecca, let me start with you. Why did you do this analysis? And why focus on Tyson Foods?
Colleen: Why did you do this analysis and why focus on Tyson Foods?
Rebecca: So we focused on Tyson foods because they are one of the biggest companies in the food industry. On the Fortune 500 list the are number 73. Last year they had 42 billion dollars in revenue. They are the biggest meat and poultry processor in the country. They’re giant and they produce one out of every five lbs. of chicken or beef or pork in the US food supply. So chances are if you’ve eaten any of those things recently it’s possible and likely that it came from a Tyson plant. So, they’re a big name in the game. And then we focused on Arkansas because that’s’ where Tyson got its start in the 1930s, so where their headquarters are and it’s a major center of poultry processing in the US. So, given how big Tyson is and given that it’s centered there, those were the reasons why we wanted to focus so much on there. And then, the other reason we did this analysis was because concentration and consolidation in the food supply chain are issues increasingly of interest among policymakers and advocates. We knew going into the report that the poultry industry was really consolidated given Tyson’s role in it, so that’s why we focused on Tyson and why we focused on Arkansas.
Colleen:? So let’s dig into your economic analysis for a minute. What data did you look at?
Rebecca: So we looked at basically competition in the poultry processing industry in Arkansas, where Tyson is, focused. And we found that since 1990, there has been an alarming increase in the level of concentration in poultry processing there. Of course, it's led by Tyson, so our data in our analysis, we found that Tyson controls two-thirds of poultry processing in the state. And there's only a handful of other companies who are doing business in the same industry. So, Tyson controls 67% of production, and the nearest competitor controls just 8% of total poultry processing. So we went really basic and fundamental to look at competition in this industry and found really alarming, alarming trends and alarming results.
Colleen: So what are some of the findings?
Rebecca: Yeah, so besides seeing how much overall Tyson controls of poultry processing in Arkansas, we found that when you drill down further and look at concentration and competition more locally, the numbers get even worse. So, just to give a little background on how poultry supply chains work. As this industry has sort of specialized and become very mechanized and, , consolidated, supply chains, everything from the chicks that are raised, that are ultimately slaughtered in a Tyson processing plant to the farms that raised the chickens, which are in industry parlance called the broilers or meat chickens. So all of that happens in a really small geographic area. USDA research actually shows that on average, the farmers who raise the chickens that are ultimately slaughtered in these big processing plants that like a Tyson operates, they only travel like 34 miles on average to send those chickens to those plants. So everything's really focused in small areas. And so, what we found is that in a lot of counties, actually half of the counties in Arkansas where there is poultry processing, Tyson controls all the processing, there's no other competitor. And then in the rest of the counties where processing occurs, there's just one or two other companies in play.
So there's like very little competition in this industry, what we also found sort of [00:06:15.413] along those lines, is that over this same time period, there's been a dramatic loss of farms, , broiler farms, the places where the chickens are being raised. So since 1978, Arkansas has lost half of all of its meat-chicken farms. So you had this sort of specialization, mechanization, growth, and consolidation of poultry processing, which coincided this dramatic loss of farms in the state. So those are just sort of the key findings that we have from the report.
Colleen: And Nina, what was your role in this project?
Nina: Maybe I'll just start by saying that, , this joint project between "The Guardian" and Union of Concerned Scientists on Tyson in Arkansas is part of a, much bigger project that we've been doing, looking at injustices and inequalities in the food system and in the water system in the U.S. And with regard to food, we've really taken a focus on the monopolization of the food industry. And from a journalistic point of view, what we're interested in is why it matters, you know why does it matter that Tyson controls 67% of poultry production in Arkansas? You know, who were the winners and losers of this consolidation? So I guess that's what I've really been focused on. So we've looked at the impact of monopolies and near-monopolies on farmers, on workers, on communities, on residents who live nearby these sort of mega plants.
Colleen: So what is life like around Tyson headquarters and their processing plants in the state.”
Nina: So, in Northwest Arkansas where I was, Tyson is omnipresent and the industry is omnipresent. Now our big, imposing, stinky plants, the slaughterhouses and processing plants all over the place from downtown Springdale, which is where the company is headquartered, it's also where Walmart is headquartered, really very near the shops, and apartment blocks, and restaurants, to somewhere like Green Forest, which is a huge, huge plant, about an hour and 10 minutes from Springdale, in what is a really tiny, little rural, isolated dusty town, very near a place called Harrison, which has the inglorious title of the most racist place in the U.S. And these are plants where it is predominantly black and brown workers. I interviewed people from three different plants in the area, and I was told consistently that the only white Americans working there are those at supervisor and management level. Apart from that, it's migrants and refugees from lots of different countries, from Mexico, from Guatemala, El Salvador, the Marshall Islands, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Thailand, Vietnam.
So these are folks, and many of them are documented, not all of them are, many of them are, but they are vulnerable for all sorts of different reasons. And this is an industry, as it's got bigger, .. has really moved to relying almost totally on migrant, on black and brown workers. And so, in these communities, you have these massive plants. And, you know, I think one of the things that struck me straight away is that what is it like to live there? Never mind work there, what is it like to live there? So I started talking to people who just had their houses across the road from the Springdale plant, which is sort of the flagship plant in that region. And, you know, I met a guy who was just out sitting in his garden, he was 48, Matthew was his name, and his mom had bought that house 40 years ago. He'd lived there that whole time, and the plant had grown exponentially since then. And he said to me, "I haven't had anybody over to my house for 20 years because the smell and the noise can just be so awful. How could I have people here?" You know, his house is worth so little that it's basically unsellable. If he sold it, he'd never be able to buy something anywhere else.
Colleen: And what about the conditions inside the plants?
Nina: The workers inside they are coping every day with really the smell of dead animals, and really the noise, I think they described can be intolerable, and impacts their hearing, people suffer from hearing loss. So these are the physical conditions, and then environments where the pressure, and the stress, and the obligation to keep working, to work overtime, to work whether you're sick or injured, which Tyson denies by the way, but absolutely is what everybody described to me. You know, this incredible pressure that they're under to keep the machine, to keep the lines going, the assembly lines going, keep the mixers mixing at all costs. And it really is, I think, a very difficult environment for people to live and to work, and it's very difficult regardless of Tyson's insistence that people can complain, people can report abuses, people can report issues, people absolutely fear retribution. There is a points-based punishment system in place, and people don't feel able to speak out. It's a really tense and pressured environment.
Colleen: What is a points-based disciplinary system?
Nina: Well, first of all, I'll say that Tyson denies that such a system exists. But I was told consistently by everyone I spoke to that workers can be given points, one point, two points, three points for all sorts of different things. So for example, overtime is obligatory. Everybody has to work on Saturday or Sunday, right? You have no choice. If you don't go in because maybe you're sick or something has happened, and you don't call to tell them you're not going in, you'll get three points. If you call and tell them, "Look, my kid's sick, I can't come in," they'll still give you a point, And maybe you go to the bathroom without asking permission. Maybe you... I heard of a case of a lady who injured herself. She, immediately got a big bruise, her legs slightly swell up, but she wasn't bleeding and the nurse refused to let her go home. In that case, a supervisor even came over and said, "Look, she's really in a lot of pain, let her go," the nurse wouldn't. So the lady went home anyway, she was awarded points, right? And so at 14 points, you can be fired.
Colleen: Are there any regulations? Nina in your article, I think you mentioned that people are given 20 minutes for a lunch break and they have to leave the floor, take their protective clothing off, eat, put their protective clothing on, and get back onto the floor in a ridiculously small amount of time.
Nina: You know, I mean, according to Tyson, people can leave the assembly line whenever they need to for a bathroom break, but that just isn't the reality. First of all, you have to get permission from a supervisor. If a supervisor isn't around because they're, , at another part of the plant, [00:25:30.105] and, you fall sick or you just desperately need the bathroom and you go, that's a fireable offense. And at the very least, you may be given these punitive points so then you when you get to 14 points, you can be fired. And, also, it depends on your supervisor. You know, one of the workers...a couple of the workers I spoke to just talked about their supervisors, they described them as despots, , just never letting them take bathroom breaks, or being really intimidating, shouting at them in front of others.
And so, I think it really depends, while the policy might be written down to say that people can take bathroom breaks, reasonable bathroom breaks, that just isn't the reality. They're so short-staffed, and I think it's an important point to remember that during the pandemic, when people have been sick, their production has never gone down. You know, they have not produced...they have not slaughtered fewer chickens, or produced fewer chicken nuggets, right? That has just kept up. So they've been doing that with less staff, so, they're only gonna let you go to the bathroom if they've got someone else to come and take your place because they're not going to shut off an assembly line. So it's really difficult. I don't know, actually, maybe Rebecca does, I don't know what the law says regarding minimum breaks. I'm assuming they're complying with that, but I'm not sure whether the regulation is statewide or whether it's federal.
Rebecca: in the report, we talk about federal laws and some of the things that can be improved to protect workers, especially from coronavirus. And those laws come from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. and we heard a lot about, during the pandemic, actually, there was a lot of discussion among advocates and healthcare workers even about, , OSHA issuing this emergency temporary standard to increase the required protections for certain classes of workers, which the Biden administration ultimately issued those standards for healthcare workers, but failed to do it for poultry workers even though they're at really a heightened risk for coronavirus, for example, because of the way they work, , in close proximity to one another. So there are definitely federal and state laws at play to protect the workers.
Nina: just adding to that, you just reminded me of what one of the people I interviewed said, , that the only reason that they're frontline workers, only so because their labor is what's required, right? It's what the U.S. wants and what the company wants is their labor, that's why they're front-line workers. They're not treated like front-line workers in any other sense, not through their pay, not through conditions, not through respect, not through protection at all. They absolutely feel like second-class citizens, and they're very much from my reporting, I would say would are treated like that. So the frontline worker label is just a label of convenience to make sure that these folks keep working regardless of how terrible the COVID situation is, at risk to their own life and at risk to their family's lives. And I think people really feel that.
And I think that's just an indictment of the food industry in this country, and in many industries. I know it's not just here, but here we have a predominantly black and brown workforce producing our food, from those who pick our food and harvest it in... I did some reporting in the Rio Grande Valley not so long ago where...and, , these are people without whom we would not have food in our supermarket shelves, on our table. And it's a real indictment, I think, of society.
Rebecca: And I'll just add, in the report, we just briefly touch on this, but, we sort of go into a little bit of like, the history of Tyson, which started in the 1930s, again, in Arkansas. And at that time, this industry, like meat and poultry processing, was not as specialized, and mechanized, and as big as it was. Obviously, you know, we had a lot of small-scale livestock slaughtering. And there's actually research that we found in the course of doing this report that found that at that time, rural Americans were drawn to these jobs,
Colleen: so we've talked about Tyson Foods, the workers, but they're also the farmers.
Rebecca: Yeah. So in the report, we documented this dramatic loss of farms in Arkansas over the same time period we're looking at consolidation. So a 50% loss of all the farms producing these meat chickens. And at the same time, the number of broiler meat chickens raised over this time has increased by 1,000%. So the farms have gotten bigger, they're raising more chickens, they're more concentrated near these processing plants because these supply chains have increasingly, , become very geographically consolidated. And there's this contract system that pits...it's called the tournament system, and it's aptly named because farmers who are contracted with Tyson or other big processors, they're pitted against each other on their performance. So if one farmer produces their flock of chickens using less feed, or more efficiently in some way, they get a higher paycheck than their neighboring chicken farm. So, , it's cutthroat. I mean, that's sort of how market economies work. We're sort of all competing against each other, but this is really competition on steroids.
In these contracts, the farmers are not allowed to talk to the media about what they do. Those terms are written in by Tyson or other companies. So we don't know a ton because they can't talk. So that prevents us from knowing a lot. The trend of the loss of farms is obviously concerning and you can sort of think, "Well, how does that happen?" So, think about the economics of it. You have a company like Tyson that gets big, and then as they kind of acquire power and become one of the only purchasers of chickens in a particular area, they can sort of lower the prices that they pay in terms of contracts, or live chickens to the farmers. And then, of course, the bigger farmers who are a little more efficient, or have the means to sort of be more efficient, they can meet those price demands. And then other farmers on the margins, they can't make it. So they either consolidate with other farms, or they go out of business. that's sort of how the loss generally happens. And then, [00:36:30.341 it's a treadmill, right? of constantly trying to be more efficient, produce more birds But again, because these contracts, and as I said, Nina didn't get responses, they can't talk to the media, they can't really talk too much about what's going on.
Colleen: So Nina, I'm assuming you reached out to farmers. Did you get any response?
Nina: And I reached out via a organization that works with farmers, that advocates for farmers all over the country, and has outreach workers all over the place, including Arkansas, I was looking for either a current Tyson contract farmer, or a former contract farmer with a guarantee of speaking anonymously, but they were unable to find me anybody who was willing to talk to me. And I think even those who have left, who are no longer contracted by Tyson, I think there's a lot of fear. Because even if they may not be working with them directly, they may need to again at a later stage, or they may have family members or friends who are contracted by Tyson. So I think, there's just a lot of anxiety and fear about speaking out when there are so few options out there, when you are basically in a position as a farmer to sign up to one of these contracts or get out. I think it's really hard. [00:38:15.460] I mean, I think what Rebecca is describing, and I think what we're describing in this model of consolidation is a race to the bottom, right?
Colleen: Right, and I think the silence that you got from the farmers says a lot about the power dynamic, and how difficult it is.
Nina: Yeah, I think so. And I think you rarely see farmers speaking out. for example, in other industries like dairy, when you've had so many farmers going bankrupt with very similar, pressures and factors at play, you really only see farmers once they've gone bankrupt and lost everything, you know, speaking out. So I think it's really hard, even to the extent that, Matthew, the resident who I interviewed who talked about never having anyone over the past 20 years, he said, "I've never raised an official complaint with Tyson because they're the biggest employer around here, and I don't know if one day maybe I'll need a job with them." that's really powerful. That was to me really impactful. It was like, "Wow, just in case one day he needs a job with Tyson, he's endured decades of really horrible conditions, which has made his...really had an impact on the quality of his life and his house price.
Rebecca: And Tyson is the third-largest employer in Arkansas. So they are ubiquitous, and that thought that I may have to work for Tyson, that is not an overstatement, that's a possibility. The other thing that I was just gonna add is on the farming side, our analysis found that 94% of broiler farms in Arkansas have a contract with a company like Tyson. So really, it's all the farmers in Arkansas, so many are locked in to working with these companies. And like the other data we have in our report shows, there's like seven companies, and Tyson is the top and controls the vast majority of the market, so they really set the rules for farmers.
Colleen: So people just have no choice whatsoever?
Rebecca: Yeah, very little,
Colleen: So there’s another aspect of this story that we haven’t talked about and that’s the environmental impact, so what environmental impacts did you see connected to this level of consolidation?
Rebecca: You know, as I was saying earlier, the the supply chain has really consolidated in this industry for all the reasons that I talked about earlier. And as that consolidation of the supply chain has happened, the waste, and the consolidation of the farms, , the poop from the chickens, which is called litter in the industry, has also concentrated in particular areas in Arkansas and elsewhere. Like when you look at other states where there's animal production like this, the waste gets concentrated in smaller and smaller areas, because the farms are getting bigger and they're raising more animals. So you may not know it, but like, you know, you might live in a community near where all of this manure and this waste is being produced. And a lot of times, it gets distributed on nearby farmland, and then a lot of the nutrients and the chemicals in that end up in waterways. So, the worker issues are really important. The issues that are affecting farmers are important, but there's also like a bigger impact that this style of production is having on communitiesin general. And what we also found is that a lot of that waste is increasingly produced in communities of color in Arkansas. So that's just another thing I want to say is this could affect you. Like it might be near your house. just as Nina was saying about this person who lives near a plant and how bad it smells, like the same is true for how it could affect your water quality if you happen to be downstream from one of these farms or one of these plants.
Colleen: So, what are some of the solutions? How do we fix the system?
Nina: I mean, I would say at a very basic level, and Rebecca can talk more about this, is that enforce the rules that are in place? I mean, the rules need to be strengthened, but they're not even being... I mean, the antitrust rules, the antitrust regulations have been worn down and not implemented for years, and years, and years, in Rebecca's report, she documents the dozens of companies and plants that Tyson has acquired over the last...I think since 1995. And that is despite constantly breaking these Department of Justice antitrust limits, thresholds. Implement the rules. What's the point of having them,
Colleen: So, for our listeners who may not be familiar with antitrust legislation, what is that?
Rebecca: Okay, so antitrust legislation would be legislation that would prohibit or make it substantially harder for a company to get as big as a Tyson, for example, or some of the other big companies in the food supply chain.
Colleen: And Rebecca, what are the solutions you’re looking at?
Rebecca: There's federal solutions, there's state solutions, and then there's things that we can do. On the federal side, what I wanna highlight USDA's current authority to address the level of consolidation and the issues that it presents, that they use that authority as much as they can. And that is in their agency called the Grain Inspections, and Packers and Stockyards Administration.
Colleen: That's got to have an acronym or something.
Rebecca: GIPSA, yeah.
Colleen: GIPSA, excellent, thank you.
Rebecca: GIPSA, yeah. And so that's a big one, and it's there. Like, we've got things on the books that we can use to address, at least on the farmer side. There's, of course, other things federally on the worker side, through OSHA and the Department of Labor. So those are the top solutions in my mind.
Colleen: And how ‘bout the state level?
So on state solutions, that's where worker issues can really be addressed. And we worked with an organizer in Arkansas, Magaly Licolli, who is trying to organize Tyson plant workers. The other things are enforcing state labor and wage laws. So the state legislature , the governor has a lot of power in making sure that those existing laws are enforced and the fines are high enough as Nina was saying, you know. Tyson, given how much revenue they rake in every year, those kind of penalties need to be stiff, right, to force them to stop doing the bad things that they're doing. And then another thing is the, state anti-discrimination laws should be enforced. That's the other thing. So, a lot of these things are already on the books, we just have to get the policymakers to make sure they have teeth and to enforce them.
Colleen: It seems like the problems are huge and the solutions, we need big solutions. But are there any things that the individual can do?
Rebecca: Yeah, I think so. you can vote with your Food Dollar, right? You can find maybe chicken that's grown in a better way where workers are treated well. You know, if you can find that kind of food, then like support that. Support those alternative food systems, support your CSA. Being an active citizen is probably 90% of what you can do as an individual, right, is hold the people who represent you in Congress or in the state government, you need to hold them to account when they let this stuff happen.
Colleen: Well, Rebecca, I appreciate all the work that you do with the analysis and the science. Nina, I really want to thank you for the work that you've done on this story. It is really important to hear the personal side of this and the toll that this is taking on people working at these plants. So thank you both so much for joining me on the podcast.
Nina: Thanks for having me.
Rebecca: Thanks, Colleen.