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Giant chicken contract ‘test case’ for LAUSD’s new food guidelines

Craig Clough | January 26, 2016

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chickenIt appears that the LA Unified school board is headed for a showdown with the giant chicken industry.

As the second largest school district in the nation, LA Unified has traditionally been one of the largest purchasers of chicken in the country but in late 2014 adopted much stricter guidelines for the food it buys.

The “Good Food’ resolution requires vendors to adhere to tougher standards when it comes to the quality of food and how companies treat animals, workers and the environment. The district’s 5-year, $754 million contract with its major food vendors is expiring this spring, and it has already renegotiated contracts with its beef, dairy, produce, bread and other major vendors. The chicken contract is still open.

The chicken industry, more than any other, has proven difficult to negotiate with under the district’s new guidelines, said LA Unified school board President Steve Zimmer, author of the Good Food resolution. A new chicken contract is scheduled to be presented to the board at its Feb. 9 meeting.

“The chicken contract has been a matter of sincere debate because in the industry right now, frankly, it is very hard to find producers and processors who can produce at the level that we need in this district to get the bid under the federal guidelines and also meet our food procurement policies,” Zimmer told LA School Report.

The contracts are negotiated by the district’s Procurement Services Division and then approved by the school board. Zimmer said the chicken contract could potentially be in the area of $60 million and will be first real test of the Good Food resolution since it passed. Tyson Foods, one of the largest chicken companies in the country, is still considered in the running for the contract, Zimmer said.

As the recommended vendor, however, Tyson could put the district in an uncomfortable position. Tyson has often been criticized for the very things the Good Food resolution addresses, such as how it treats its animals, how it treats is workers and the quality of the chickens it produces.

“This really is, in my mind, a test case,” Zimmer said. “There are parts of the Good Food purchasing policy that we passed, several resolutions, that have never been fully implemented. And so this is really the first time we have looked at a comprehensive implementation.”

The board is also under pressure from labor groups not to do business with Tyson. At the Jan. 12 meeting, Sean Martinez, a representative of Teamsters Joint Council 42, spoke to the board and asked it not to sign a contract with Tyson.

“[Tyson’s] record is abhorrent, and as a leader of this industry in the United States they set an extremely terrible precedent,” Martinez said.

Part of the Good Food resolution called for anti-biotic free chicken, something that Tyson Foods did not produce at the time. But a few months after the resolution was passed, Tyson announced it was going anti-biotic free. Still, Zimmer said he is skeptical that Tyson can meet all of the new guidelines.

“I am very, very concerned about Tyson for a number of reasons. Labor is one very significant area of concern,” he said. “To say it very plainly, I am not convinced that Tyson in 2016 — no matter what the procurement process was — I am not sure Tyson could in 2016 meet the guidelines of the Good Food procurement, period.”

Despite his misgiving, Zimmer seemed to anticipate that Tyson could in fact be the recommended vendor, putting the board in the position of having to enforce its own Good Food policies.

“It will be an interesting meeting on the 9th,” he said, adding, “This is a real test. No matter what they write, no matter what they say, I don’t see a record of significant change in their business practices from Tyson, and to capitulate to the idea that we are not going to spend any more money to follow our policy, or to capitulate to the idea that if kids don’t have chicken nuggets there is going to be some kind of health crisis, is just not something I can abide. I believe if you have a policy, that policy needs to be followed.”

When asked if the district may end up buying less chicken and serving less chicken in its cafeterias, Zimmer said, “That is certainly one possibility.”


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