Feature

Don Tyson, 1930-2011

The ‘dumb chicken farmer’ who built a food empire

Don Tyson hated to let any part of a chicken go to waste. While his vast network of processing plants stocked America’s meat counters with chicken breasts, wings, and drumsticks, they used the feathers, blood, and internal organs in pet food and shipped the feet to China, where they’re used in soup stock. But Tyson had little success finding a use for the gizzard, a small, muscular pocket in the bird’s digestive tract. A scheme to add hamburger flavor to gizzards and sell them as a novelty food fell flat. So Tyson contacted someone he knew who worked in corrections, and together they hatched a plan to feed gizzard burgers to prisoners. After inmates sampled them for the first time, Tyson’s acquaintance called him and said, “Don, if we try to serve ’em again, these prisoners are gonna riot.”

Born in Olathe, Kan., Tyson was raised in Arkansas, where he took over the family business after his father and stepmother’s car collided with a train. Although he liked to describe himself as a “dumb chicken farmer,” Tyson turned a small family feed and hauling business into a global food empire, said The Wall Street Journal. He was a ruthless, risk-taking entrepreneur who built on his father’s strategy of controlling all facets of chicken production “to create a national brand of meat, something that few packers had dared to do.” He was one of the first to recognize that the parts of a chicken, when processed and conveniently packaged, could be worth more than the whole. “He took boring old chicken and turned it into the thousands of chicken products we have now,” said industry consultant Paul Aho.

As Tyson Foods grew, its products “became the answer to a daily question: What’s for dinner?” said The Washington Post. By the 2000s, some 6,000 different products bore the Tyson brand, and the company supplied chicken to Burger King and KFC. When McDonald’s was looking for a new poultry product to serve its millions of customers, it worked with Tyson to develop Chicken McNuggets.

But Tyson didn’t “put Arkansas on the world map for poultry” without ruffling some feathers, said the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Family-farm advocates assailed him for the tight control he exerted over chicken producers, and environmentalists criticized his operations for allowing waste to pollute local water supplies. In 1997 Tyson pleaded guilty, on behalf of his company, to federal charges of giving illegal gifts to Mike Espy, Agriculture secretary under President Clinton. The company paid $6 million to settle the charges.

Stepping down as CEO in 1991, Tyson remained chairman of the board until 1995. He maintained an office at the company’s headquarters in Springdale, Ark., showing up for work in the khaki coveralls worn by the company’s line workers. The name stitched on his shirt read simply “Don.”

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