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Don Tyson, politically connected 'Chicken King' of Arkansas, dies at 80

Don Tyson, chairman of the Arkansas-based Tyson Foods Inc.
Don Tyson, chairman of the Arkansas-based Tyson Foods Inc. (Twp File - Washington Post)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 6, 2011; 8:31 PM

Don Tyson, 80, an aw-shucks Arkansas farmhand who turned his father's single-truck poultry-hauling business into a worldwide protein empire, crowning himself America's "Chicken King," died Jan. 6 at his home near Springdale, Ark. He had cancer.

Mr. Tyson was the longtime leader of Tyson Foods, the top U.S. meat producer with sales of more than $28 billion a year and 115,000 workers across the globe.

Under his direction, Tyson Foods became the leading supplier of chicken and meat products to 88 of the top 100 fast-food restaurants.

Mr. Tyson sold chicken to Burger King and KFC. When McDonald's wanted to mass-produce a new poultry product, thumb-size boneless tenders, the world's largest fast-food chain turned to Mr. Tyson.

He helped develop a new breed of chicken, genetically engineered to grow large breasts, and supplied the company with an endless pile of McNuggets.

For many Americans, Tyson products became the answer to a daily question: What's for dinner?

By the early 2000s, Tyson Foods marketed more than 6,000 products and turned out more than 25 billion pounds of beef, chicken and pork. At peak production, Tyson Foods facilities are capable of slaughtering 25 million chickens in a week.

The key to Mr. Tyson's success was in processing meats in innovative ways. In 1972, his company was one of the first to sell frozen chickens to be cooked in microwaves.

His facilities could also debone, marinate, slice, batter, bread, cook and freeze chicken meat into patties, nuggets, tenders, quarters, legs, breasts and whole birds.

"People say, 'I dont want to cook that damn chicken, it takes too long,' " Mr. Tyson once said. "They just want to take it out of the package, plunk it in the microwave and serve it."

Mr. Tyson was not one to waste any part of a chicken. Feathers, blood and internal organs were rendered into pet food. Large shipments of chicken feet went to China to be used for soup stock.

Not all of Mr. Tyson's products were succcesses. When his plants had a surplus of chicken gizzards, a small, muscular pocket of the bird's digestive tract, he tried to find a way to market them by adding hamburger flavor.

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