Tyson plans equity audit of policies

Tyson Foods has plans to commission a detailed study to determine if the company's practices contribute to racial inequities.

An independent group will carry out an equity audit of the nation's largest meat company as part of Tyson's broader human rights assessment scheduled for next year, spokesman Gary Mickelson said Friday.

A group of investors known as the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility had submitted a shareholder proposal for Tyson's 2022 proxy calling on Tyson to perform such an audit, but withdrew the proposal.

The company had already intended to conduct a human rights study, with a racial equity component, before the investor proposal was filed, Mickelson said.

The meatpacking industry, which employs many immigrants and people of color to staff slaughterhouses, was hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, with a number of virus outbreaks resulting in worker deaths and temporary plant shutdowns.

This sparked accusations of racial discrimination in the industry, where a diverse workforce cuts and packs meats for a business dominated by white corporate leaders. Racial and ethnic minorities were disproportionately affected by the virus, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Tyson is one of the latest companies to commit to an audit after racial-justice protests across the U.S. last year. During the most recent proxy season, investors used shareholder resolutions to call for such internal audits.

These audits, typically performed by third-party firms, assess a company's policies, practices and efforts to combat systemic racism. Starbucks and Airbnb performed such studies years before the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis put heightened focus on racial inequality.

After its audit, Starbucks began requiring implicit bias training, setting corporate diversity goals, among other efforts in response to an incident that led to the wrongful arrests of two Black men at a store in Philadelphia.

Studies like these not only help address harmful policies or practices, but can remedy the public perception of the company, as well as increase profitability and competitive advantage, according to a recent Harvard Law School study.

The Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility filed the proposal with 16 other investors, including American Baptist Home Mission Societies and Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia.

In the resolution, shareholders had asked Tyson to identify and recommend steps to eliminate business activities that further systemic racism and requested the study get input from affected workers.

The meatpacker has a history of worsening racial inequities, the investor group said, citing a complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Agriculture that alleges Tyson's failure to prevent covid-19 outbreaks among Black and Hispanic workers to racial discrimination.

The resolution also referred to accusations from former employees at one of Tyson's chicken plants that were called racial slurs by a manager for four years.

"These allegations represent very real reputational and legal risks for the company, and we applaud its decision to conduct an audit that would help Tyson mitigate them and avoid adverse impacts on communities of color," said David Moore, director of investments for the American Baptist Home Mission Societies, a founding member of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility.

Earlier this year Tyson hired its first chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer, and has taken steps to promote racial equity, including unconscious bias training that is being expanded to other parts of the company. Mickelson said Tyson has a strong focus and commitment to racial equity and human rights.

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