Health & Fit: Fact check: Bill Gates, Tyson Foods not instigating collapse of meat supply

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The claim: Bill Gates and major food companies are raising concerns about the food supply chain to promote lab-grown meat

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As COVID-19 continues to strain society’s traditional resources and supply chains, some online are claiming that the alarm bells raised by companies are part of a coordinated agenda.

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“Do you wonder why the media wants you panicked about the food supply and why farms are slaughtering and aborting animals? Bill Gates and food giant Tyson have both heavily backed lab-grown meat research,” a viral article from the website SHTF Plan reads.

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The article suggests that because Bill Gates and Tyson Foods have supported research and startups focusing on lab-grown meat, they are trying to undercut the nation’s supply of meat amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Both Gates and Tyson Foods support research efforts into lab-grown meat and other alternative meat projects, but they are not responsible for the current supply chain stresses on America’s meat supply.

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The main cause for concern surrounding the nation’s food supply stems from the impact of the new coronavirus, which has impacted activities like meat production and distribution.

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Bill Gates, the meat industry and "clean meat" products

The past few years have seen significant interest and investment in alternative meat products. This trend is largely driven by growing concerns over the environmental and health costs of meat production and consumption.

Gates has been a prominent supporter of lab-grown and alternative meat initiatives, known in the industry as "clean meat." In the past decade, he has invested in alternative meat companies such as Hampton Creek and Beyond Meat, citing the potential the companies have to help manage concerns about the global food supply in the coming decades.

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“Raising meat takes a great deal of land and water and has a substantial environmental impact. Put simply, there’s no way to produce enough meat for 9 billion people,” Gates wrote on his blog in 2013.  “Yet we can’t ask everyone to become vegetarians.

"That’s why we need more options for producing meat without depleting our resources."

Gates, who is famously a fan of McDonald’s burgers, joins a cadre of elite investors and major meat companies in their support of lab-grown meat, which some hope will ultimately prove to be a sustainable replacement for meat products.

In 2018, Tyson Foods, the largest meat producer in the country, began investing in Memphis Meats, a California-based lab-growing meat firm.

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“We’re excited about this opportunity to broaden our exposure to innovative, new ways of producing meat, especially since global protein demand has been increasing at a steady rate,” said Justin Whitmore, an executive vice president at the firm, said in January 2018.

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"The foundation is not currently invested in projects or companies in the alternative meat industry," the Gates Foundation said in a statement to USA TODAY.

While Gates and Tyson Foods have backed some of the same alternative meat companies, they have never coordinated investments on the matter. Neither is responsible for the current stresses facing the country’s meat supply chain, which are attributable to the COVID-19 crisis.

Tyson Foods declined to comment for this article.

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The meat supply and COVID-19

Like many companies that supply critical consumer products amid the coronavirus pandemic, Tyson Foods has seen its supply chain severely strained because of the disease.

The company’s meat processing plants have become hot spots for the spread of coronavirus in recent months.

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The threat has caused some workers to protest for higher compensation and better working conditions. Meat processing giants have addressed some demands and also sought liability protection from lawmakers.

Tyson and its competitors have taken some steps to prevent the spread of coronavirus in their facilities but have experienced significant outbreaks in several plants. The phenomenon is not unique to the company; slaughterhouses and meat-processing plants across the globe have become sites for coronavirus outbreaks recently.

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"The food supply chain is breaking," John Tyson, the company's chairman and heir to the family fortune, wrote in a full-page advertisement published in The New York Times, Washington Post and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in late April.

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"In addition to meat shortages, this is a serious food waste issue. Farmers across the nation simply will not have anywhere to sell their livestock to be processed, when they could have fed the nation.'

Due to the stress of these outbreaks, many sites were forced to shut down operations amid the coronavirus pandemic and institute changes. Tyson Foods increased personal protective equipment for workers, added barriers and encouraged some social distancing at its sites.

In late April, President Donald Trump designated meat processors as critical infrastructure, allowing many companies to send employees back to work. The Department of Labor also issued a statement minimizing liability for meat companies who take basic precautions amid the pandemic.

A USA TODAY investigation found that despite these protections, coronavirus cases at meatpacking plants have increased since many sites resumed production.

According to the CDC, the main reasons why slaughterhouses have become hot spots for the disease is the proximity of workers in the plants and average shifts of 10-12 hours, increasing the potential for exposure.

In 2019, Tyson Foods reported $42 billion in revenue with over 121,000 total employees. Nearly all that revenue came from traditional meat products, especially beef, pork and chicken. Then, the company expected modest growth in production of each of these meat products, which would be accounted for through increasing meat production around its global sites, not through lab-grown or plant-based alternative products.

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While Tyson Foods and some of its competitors have invested in “clean meat” products and companies recently, growth in these products is a long way from upending the industry’s financial dependence on traditional meat products for revenue.

Many of these issues predated the coronavirus pandemic; the meat industry is not intentionally sabotaging itself with these factors in favor of alternative meat. Rather, many of the common practices in the industry have made meat and poultry production especially vulnerable to disruption from the coronavirus pandemic.

Our ruling: False

It is true that Bill Gates and Tyson Foods have invested in “clean meat” products in recent years. That said, there is no evidence that either has coordinated with the other on these efforts. It is also baseless to claim that the meat industry is raising alarms about the national meat supply chain to promote alternative meats. Rather, the supply chain is facing a crisis, and meat producers are concerned about the well-being of their businesses. We rate this claim as FALSE because it is not supported by our research.

Our fact-check sources:

  • National Geographic, Eating meat has ‘dire’ consequences for the planet, says report
  • CNBC, How Impossible Burger’s ‘simple’ vision won hundreds of millions in funding — and backing from Bill Gates
  • GatesNotes, Future of Food
  • Business Insider,  Here's the real story behind the mythic card in Bill Gates' and Warren Buffett's wallets
  • CNBC, Bill Gates and Richard Branson are betting lab-grown meat might be the food of the future
  • Tyson Foods, January 29, 2018, press release
  • Bloomberg, Lab-Grown Meat Backed by Gates, Tyson Foods Faces U.S. Oversight
  • Reuters, Coronavirus will constrain U.S. meat supply despite Trump order: Tyson Foods
  • USA TODAY, Cheap chicken, beef came at a cost. How American meat plants bred coronavirus hot spots.
  • Wall Street Journal, Food-Plant Workers Clash With Employers Over Coronavirus Safety
  • USA TODAY, Coronavirus at meatpacking plants worse than first thought, USA TODAY investigation finds
  • White House, April 28, 2020, Executive Order
  • Department of Labor, April 28, 2020, Statement of Enforcement
  • USA TODAY, Coronavirus outbreaks climb at U.S. meatpacking plants despite protections, Trump order
  • CDC, Interim Guidance to Meat and Poultry Processing Workers and Employers
  • Tyson Foods, Fourth Quarter and Fiscal 2019 Results

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Our fact check work is supported in part by a grant from Facebook.

Education coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Gates Foundation does not provide editorial input.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: Bill Gates, Tyson Foods not instigating collapse of meat supply

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