Consumer groups challenge “deceptive” Tyson ads that brag about worker safety

“Safer than ever”: When it comes to claims about consumer health or animal welfare, false ad complaints are pretty common. Worker safety may be the new frontier.

A worker coalition in Arkansas and a Washington, D.C.-based environmental nonprofit have asked the government to stop Tyson Foods, one of America’s biggest meat companies, from advertising to the public that its workers are “safer than ever.” In a complaint filed today with the Federal Trade Commission, the agency that regulates advertising and marketing on airwaves and online, the two groups, Venceremos and Food and Water Watch, allege that the meat giant makes workplace safety claims that are “egregiously misleading” consumers.

The Springdale, Arkansas-based company says that it ensures “safe and healthy” workplaces, but the complainants say that’s not true. Tyson has reported more severe injuries than all but two other companies since 2015, and had more Covid-19 cases than any other meatpacker during the pandemic. Nor could the company be “committed to improving the health and safety” of its workers, as it claims, because it hasn’t implemented social distancing at workstations or slowed down line speeds, two actions that federal agencies have recommended to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

Tyson has reported more severe injuries than all but two other companies since 2015, and had more Covid-19 cases than any other meatpacker during the pandemic.

“Tyson’s actual practices are inconsistent with how consumers perceive its claims that the company provides a ‘safe’ workplace and sources from ‘independent’ family farms,” the complaint reads. The groups have asked FTC to require Tyson to remove those claims from its website, enjoin them from making those statements in the future, and issue corrections to the media.

Meat processing facilities have long been known for dangerous, unsafe practices. The nation’s estimated 526,000 meat processing workers suffer grisly amputations, fractures and burns more often than workers in other industries, and develop long-term conditions and chronic pain. 

But before the coronavirus pandemic, conscious consumers were more likely to cite animal welfare and the industry’s climate impact as reasons to opt out of meat, says Anna Griggs, a corporate strategy consultant for Fortune 100 brands. Front-page news about slaughterhouse workers falling ill and dying from the virus thrust the job conditions back into the spotlight.

“It’s been widely reported that some of the largest coronavirus outbreaks in the U.S. and internationally have been in meatpacking plants,” Griggs said. “That is causing some consumers to say, is it ethical to be consuming meat right now?”

“It’s been widely reported that some of the largest coronavirus outbreaks in the U.S. and internationally have been in meatpacking plants. That is causing some consumers to say, is it ethical to be consuming meat right now?”

Market research shows that consumers are increasingly worried about how workers are treated. In a recent Morning Consult survey, 67 percent of respondents said it was “very important” that companies take care of employees and treat them well. “In times like this,” 64 percent of them said they were more likely to buy from a company that provided clean and safe environments. 

Brands are responding with disastertisements that are at pains to show how safe their workers are. Walmart, Burger King, and Amazon have all commissioned ads to show that essential workers are being protected, not sacrificed, on the job. In a folksy TV spot, Tyson directs viewers to a landing page for videos of workers explaining what the company has done to protect them from the virus. 

“I feel safer here than I do going to the stores,” one employee says, over an uplifting, optimistic piano melody. The camera pans to clips of workers, decked out in safety equipment, calmly inspecting carcasses and meat cuts on an assembly line broken up with plastic barriers. “I believe it’s important that Tyson stays open during this time,” another adds, over images of safety bulletins and printed reminders to socially distance.

Another video, filmed at the company’s Springdale, Arkansas, poultry plant, showcases safety equipment, like temperature scanners, hand sanitizer, masks, and face shields, and worker crews that patrol break rooms to clean down virus-proof lunch tables.

Magaly Licolli, the director of Venceremos, the worker coalition that brought the complaint and has organized protests at that plant, said the video is misleading, and doesn’t show “the whole reality of the plant.” Earlier this month, the group called directly on politicians and company shareholders to improve worker conditions. The petition to the Federal Trade Commission, Licolli said, is a different approach, but ultimately with the same goal to put pressure on Tyson to do more to stop the spread of the virus.

“There are places where workers cannot practice social distancing, such as the hallways, the bathrooms and the locker rooms.”

“The dividers are not set at all workstations. And there are places where workers cannot practice social distancing, such as the hallways, the bathrooms and the locker rooms,” Licolli said of the conditions at the Berry Street plant. Across the country, Tyson’s  “workers are still getting sick.”

Tyson is one of the world’s largest meat companies, one of the so-called Big Four that dominates production in the United States. The company claims to produce approximately 20 percent of all beef, pork and chicken in the United States, earning tens of billions of dollars in sales every year. It employs 141,000 people in farms and factories worldwide.

The complaint, which also takes issue with Tyson’s pastoral imagery of “independent family farmers,” alleges that the company couldn’t possibly be “committed to improving the health and safety” of its workers, nor ensuring that processing work is “done in the safest manner,” nor “keeping team members safer than ever,” because of its poor track record with injuries and illnesses.

In a severe injury database maintained by OSHA, which tracks mutilations and other injuries among private employers in more than half of all states, plus U.S. territories, Tyson ranks far above other meatpackers, including its competitors JBS USA, Cargill, and Smithfield. Overall, it’s ranked third among all private companies in workplace injuries, behind only Walmart and UPS, which boast much larger workforces.

In OSHA’s severe injury database, Tyson ranks far above its top competitors JBS USA, Cargill, and Smithfield.

News reports also show that Tyson has not succeeded in stopping the spread of the virus in its plants. As of this writing, the company has had 9,937 Covid-19 cases in its chicken, pork and beef plants, according to Investigate Midwest, an infection count that’s approaching three times that of JBS USA. Tyson has come under fire for apparent inconsistencies in testing. 

Critics attribute Tyson’s higher-than-usual caseloads to a punitive sick leave policy that forces employees to attend work, for fear of getting fired. Tyson plants also run faster than normal, with many being granted line speed waivers, several of which were issued during the pandemic. That’s a key issue, because faster lines force more workers together. Nor has Tyson consistently implemented 6-foot social distancing rules recommended by the Centers for Disease Control, recently telling Democratic senators that it was “not possible” on some production lines.

When asked for comment, a Tyson spokesman did not address the allegations made by Venceremos and Food and Water Watch, but directed The Counter to an announcement that the company has tested “nearly a third of its workforce” and plans to deploy 200 additional nurses and administrative staff to test “thousands of workers every week” across all facilities, and screen for symptoms. The company said that less than 1 percent of its American workforce of 120,000 currently has the disease. 

When it comes to deceptive advertising, food companies are more often taken to task over issues that directly affect consumers. Pom Wonderful, for instance, was found to have misled the public about the health benefits of pomegranate juice. Animal welfare is another constant, according to consumer advocates contacted by The Counter, who cite PETA’s regular complaints about companies that advertise products as “humane.”

“Something like this has a good chance of getting an ear over at the FTC.”

Complaints about false depictions of worker safety are far more rare. Linda Sherry, a legislative director at Consumer Action, a national consumer watchdog, said class action lawsuits are the “really strong deterrent,” but added that a deceptive advertising complaint could succeed. 

“Something like this has a good chance of getting an ear over at the FTC,” she said, adding that the pandemic is a “prime time” to challenge “lovey-dovey” commercials.

Federal Trade Commission staff could not recall the agency compelling an action or settlement for deceptive advertising of job conditions, but said that a complaint about a specific claim, such as daily temperature checks, could be “actionable.”

The complaint is available here.

Sam Bloch is a staff writer for The Counter.