Report ties biggest U.S. meat producer to Gulf of Mexico dead zone

August 1, 2017

By Kate Bradshaw


Once again, an environmental group has used objective data to correlate the connection between waste from massive meat production facilities and detrimental waterway pollution, namely, the dead zone that plagues the Gulf of Mexico every summer.

The group Mighty Earth, which is chaired by former Democratic U.S. Rep. from California Henry Waxman, just released a reportthat ties the nation's largest meat producer, Tyson foods, (and others) to the annual phenomenon, which occurs due to a dearth of oxygen in the water near the Mississippi Delta. (Here's a handy graphic illustrating how the dead zone happens.)

The study mapped factory farms along the Mississippi River where animals are raised and slaughtered to produce meat as well as the fields where animal feed like corn and soy is grown and overlaid that map with data on the largest incidents of nitrate pollution in the Mississippi River Watershed. It found that Tyson Foods is the worst offender, given that it had the largest geographic footprint in areas where nitrate pollution had the biggest impacts. Researchers also found that states the U.S. Geological Survey has deemed as being the biggest contributors to pollution in the gulf also happen to have major Tyson facilities.

Nitrates are a product of fertilizer runoff as well as manure from the animals that are raised to be slaughtered for food.

It's a contaminant that is associated with multiple types of cancer when it seeps into a local drinking water supply, and it feeds harmful algae blooms that contribute to the yearly dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, which this year is forecast to be about the size of New Jersey — the third largest since scientists began measuring the dead zone.

Tyson produces one in every five pounds of meat consumed (or bought and thrown away) in the U.S.; owns brands like Jimmy Dean, Hillshire Farm, Ball Park, and Sara Lee and supplies to chain restaurants like McDonald's.

The average American eats some 211 pounds of meat every year. And despite what seems like an growing embrace of plant-based diets, the USDA expects that number to grow in the coming years.

With that, assuming there's no groundswell of consumer demand for more sustainable meat production methods that go beyond greenwashing (or, hey, more widespread embrace of a plant-based lifestyle while we're at it), if Mighty Earth's report is any indication, this industry's environmental impact is going to be dire over the years.

The report cited USGS data that put the volume of nitrogen pollution that flowed into the gulf in 2016 alone at about 1.15 million metric tons; that's 170 percent more than the volume of oil that gushed into the gulf during the 2010 BP oil disaster.

And who knows what all that runoff is doing to ground and surface drinking water resources in the Heartland where these facilities exist?

“Americans should not have to choose between producing food and having healthy clean water,”Mighty Earth campaign director Lucia von Reusner said in a media release. “Big meat companies like Tyson have left a trail of pollution across the country, and have a responsibility to their customers and the public to clean it up.”

Here in Florida, we know all about what big ag does to waterways. 

Another huge meat producer, Pilgrim's Pride, is defending itself against a lawsuit environmental groups brought against it over surface water pollution from a factory farm that raises and slaughters chickens right along the Suwannee River — and guess where it dumps its waste.

And further south, Big Sugar is widely believed to be the main offender behind the toxic green sludge crisis that as impacted both coasts in South Florida.