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On Tyson and T-Day…

On Friday night, I went to a screening of Food Inc. with Director Robert Kenner at the Phillipstown Depot, the former train station in Garrison that has been turned into a small theater. After the screening, Kenner took questions from the audience and I couldn’t help but ask whether he (and his researchers) had relied on SEC filings (OK — I explained it a bit more since not everyone knows what a 10-K is) from any of the big companies featured prominently (and not very flatteringly) in his film. The basic gist of the movie — for those who haven’t seen it — is that America’s food supply is controlled by a handful of companies.

As most footnoted readers know, Smithfield (SFD), Monsanto (MON), Con-Agra (CAG), and Tyson (TSN) are all publicly traded companies with reams of information available as long as you’re willing to dive in. Because most of the companies were unwilling to respond to Kenner’s inquiries (nor appear on camera) while he was working on the film, I suggested that the filings might have been helpful.

By shear coincidence, Tyson filed its 10K yesterday and with the film fresh in my mind (and with Thanksgiving two days away), I decided to dig in. Now images and interviews — like those in the film — are pretty powerful stuff. But some of these numbers in the filing just blew me away. In the past year, Tyson has added 10 additional chicken processing plants and 5 additional chicken rendering plants. The number of breeder houses has gone from 310 to 483 — a 55% increase — and the number of broiler houses has grown from 512 to 864 — a 68% increase. Beef and pork didn’t change over the past year.

All of that additional processing capability has led to a lot of processed (some might say dead) chickens and turkeys. This year, Tyson facilities processed 48 million chickens and turkeys a week, compared with 44 million in fiscal 2008 — another number that’s hard to fathom, even with the images from the movie fresh in my head.

One other thing I found interesting — and straight to Kenner’s point — is the control some of these companies are able to exert on regulators. A problem with wastewater at a Tyson plant in Dakota City, Neb which involved both the EPA and the Department of Justice resulted in a fine of just over $2 million. The government had initially demanded $5.5 million according to the filing.

Chew on that over Thanksgiving!