If "sustainability" describes how companies and corporations are operating in a way that is respectful of the environment, nature, the people employed by them and the communities where they operate, there is no doubt more meat and poultry slaughtering and processing firms have taken steps toward sustainable operations during the last few years.

Some companiesare also helping people and farms working with them to move along the same pathway to sustainability. The Univ. of Georgia in Athens, which is working with other companies, is also involved in efforts to implement some of the hottest trends in sustainability, including reusing water in meat and poultry plants.

One such company providing help to some of the farms and farmers it works with to improve their environmental practices in the field is Perdue Farms, Salisbury, Md. In part, Perdue is analyzing the environmental practices of 1,650 farmers producing birds for the company in nine states. Working in conjunction with the Environmental Protection Agency in two of the agency’s regions in that geographical area, Perdue is conducting assessments of its growers, as part of a sustainability program called Clean Waters Environmental Initiatives.

"The assessments are being done over a four-year period," says Steve Schwalb, vice president for environmental sustainability at Perdue. "Once the assessments are finished, we [suggest] how our contract growers can take steps to make their farm environments even better."

Schwalb says the company has organized its sustainability efforts into several platforms. "They are: reduce, reuse, recycle; research; and innovation. Our environmental sustainability program extends through every aspect of our company’s operations," he says. He’ll also help bring sustainability to a higher awareness level in every phase of the company’s activities over the next few years, including efforts focused on new processing lines for fryers.

"As part of our Perdue Agri Recycle Program, which has been operating since 2000, we’ve been developing alternatives to land application of poultry litter," Schwalb says. "If I was just growing poultry, I’d really have no use for litter. But we’ve invested $13 million to build a facility that processes litter into organic products I could use as a grower."

Perdue has also developed the Clean Bays Initiative, a historic agreement between the company and 19 of its largest contract producers, to protect Chesapeake Bay and the coastal bays in Delmarva (Delaware, Maryland and Virginia). The company plans to expand the program it designed throughout all the regions it operates in. "We train these growers in the EPA regulations that contribute to cleaning the bay, and we help them find additional resources they can use on their farms, including resources from us." Julie DeYoung, director of corporate media relations for Perdue, says the company is also actively involved in sustainability efforts outside the environment, including animal welfare and safe food. "We’ve had a poultry welfare council for years, and the purpose of the council is to insure the health of the birds and their humane treatment," DeYoung says. "We’re also very involved in efforts to train our contract growers, and in fact, everyone in the company exposed to live birds."

DeYoung says Perdue is also taking steps to maintain the health of the company’s employees with an extensive employee-wellness program. "Our company is one of the few in the industry to establish and offer wellness centers for our employees, including clinics and doctors," she said. "We have the Perdue Health Improvement Program. Our employees are screened for high blood pressure, diabetes, problems if they smoke, so they can have early interventions and treatments. These activities are part of good corporate sustainability programs."

New ways to reduce environmental impact in its food-processing operations are top sustainability goals for Austin, Minn.-based Hormel Foods. "This year, we are preparing to set new goals for reducing our greenhouse gas emissions," says Julie H. Craven, vice president of corporate communications. Other sustainability goals are establishing individual benchmarks for measuring energy consumption, solid waste management, air emissions and water consumption at the company’s 41 U.S. manufacturing facilities.

Corporate sustainability is not limited to environmental concerns. "We use the term to refer to the broader issue of being a sustainable company, including both the environment and society," she says.

Hormel has published two corporate responsibility reports. "People are a very important part of our sustainability efforts," Craven says, noting 56 percent of employees have been at the company for more than five years. She points out the company’s injury rates are consistently equal to or below the Bureau of Labor Statistics industrial average for NAICS 3116 Animal Slaughtering and Processing.

Hormel’s processing includes utilizing industry-leading animal-welfare practices and progress toward achieving its 2007 goals related to water use, energy use, solid waste reduction and air emissions. "Last year, Hormel exceeded its water use reduction target and completed 44 packaging reduction projects," Craven says. "Concerning animal welfare, the company opened a state-of-the-art hogholding facility at its Austin, Minn. plant. It also endorsed the National Pork Board’s Pork Quality Assurance Plus and Transport Quality Assurance programs by requiring individuals working with hogs to have one or both certifications.

"Hormel’s sustainability efforts include a holistic approach to looking at our energy and water consumption, as well as examining what materials are used in producing products and how we reduce waste," she adds.

Importance of water

At the Univ. of Georgia, in the heart of poultry country, Dr. Brian Kiepper, assistant professor of biological and agricultural engineering and poultry science, who also works in agricultural extension, has made environmental water conservation and re-use his main focus. He says agriculture, particularly water-dependent meat and poultry processing, has been environmentally sustainable for a long time.

"Agriculture is criticized for high water use, but agriculture is a mostly nonconsumptive user; we put water back," he says.

Water re-use has become a very hot topic in sustainability. "On the poultry side of meat processing, it’s nothing new. With HACCP beginning in meat and poultry processing in the early 1990s, an increasing use of water made processors realize more water conservation was needed. HACCP resulted in single-point re-use and recharging of chiller water in poultry processing, for example.

"Now, there is a great deal of multipoint re-use of water," Kiepper explains. "That means collecting water from several points in the plant, moving it to one single point and then moving it out to multiple places so it can be used again."

There are also closed-use systems in the meat and poultry industry. They are used mostly in areas where a great deal of water is not available. In this case, the water would have to be made potable.

"On the other hand, in an open system, if we take the water wash and we want to use it for feather picking or for scalders, we don’t have to bring the water to the same level of potability," he says.

Kiepper adds water conservation includes reductions in water use, water loss or water waste, as well as increasing meat and poultry production without increasing the use of water. "Poultry and meat processing, as well as other types of agriculture, have been excellent examples of this type of water-savings, which is great sustainability," he says.

He notes 50 years ago, 80 percent of poultry plants produced whole carcasses and 20 percent did cutup processing. "Now, more than 90 percent of poultry processors do cutup, deboning and marinating. I can think of only one facility processing complete birds now. All of this requires complete water re-use," he says.

Much of what’s going on in water savings is backed by research done by Kiepper and others at two nearby Pilgrim’s Pride processing plants, where a half-million chickens a day are slaughtered. "We continue to get more production with the same or even less water," he says.

If treating wastewater generated by a meat processing plant can be called sustainability and improving its environment, then Purnell’s Sausage in Simpsonville, Ky., has been practicing sustainability since the early 1950s. The country sausage maker has been in business since 1944, when Fred B. Purnell gave up working for the railroad and began making whole-hog sausage as a full-time family business. He purchased land in Simpsonville in 1955, and built a new plant with its own water and sewage treatment system. Todd Purnell, president of F.B. Purnell Sausage, says the company has been practicing "sustainability" by modernizing its water and sewage treatment system over the years, since the beginning. A major modernization took place in the mid-1980s, and the company added onto the treatment system about 10 years ago.

"It’s called the SBR system, and we still have room for growth with it," Purnell says. He explains Simpsonville is a very small town, and didn’t have much of a municipal sewer system when the plant was built. "As the town grew, the water and sewer system grew as well, and there was an option for us to begin using the municipal facility.

"But our feeling was to continue to do our own treatment in our plant," Purnell adds. "We would have more control, and we’d also have our own treatment bill. We’ve never regretted it."

Purnell shows customers who visit the plant how safe the wastewater is. "Our operator likes to fill up a glass beaker with the treated water and drink it in front of the customers. At first, they’re horrified, but then he explains to them how he’s drinking water now extremely pure since it’s been treated by our own treatment system. We’re very proud of that," Purnell says.

Tyson’s take

Tyson Foods, Springdale, Ark., is focusing on new areas involving its social and environmental performance, says Kevin Igli, senior vice president and chief environmental, health and safety officer. "There are lots of definitions for what we’re trying to do: People, planet and profit is one, using resources at a rate they can be replaced faster than they are used is another, meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs is still another," he says.

The company’s most recent report is called Sustainability – It’s In Our Nature, and outlines Tyson’s economic, social and environmental efforts. It’s an outgrowth of the company’s first report, which was called Living Our Core Values. "We believe sustainability is essentially doing the right thing, whether it’s protecting natural resources, creating an alternative energy source or feeding the hungry," Igli says.

"To focus even more on our corporate responsibility, we’re now members of the Univ. of Arkansas Applied Sustainability Center, which helps agricultural and businesses to make sustainability part of their operations," he continues. "We’re also creating life-cycle analysis data, looking at science and emerging technology and how they affect the sustainability practices of our business."

Igli says a major focus of the company’s sustainability efforts are tied to helping the environment by using alternative fuels.

"Through a joint venture with Syntroleum, called Dynamic Fuels LLC, we will be producing up to 75 million gallons of renewable fuel a year from animal fat. This is renewable diesel fuel, not biodiesel made from fats, yellow greases and cooking oils we’re re-using."

Tyson is also a stakeholder in the Global Reporting Initiative food sector. "GRI has developed sustainability reporting guidelines that we and other companies use to report our sustainable activities," Igli says.

Retail perspective

Company and environmental responsibility is also a key issue for the supermarket industry – and for the relationship between stores and meat and poultry processors, says Jeanne von Zastrow, senior director of industry relations for the Food Marketing Institute.

"Consumers are big drivers when it comes to sustainability activities in supermarkets and meat and poultry processing companies," she says. "There are emerging ‘ethical’ consumers, 63 percent of which value supermarkets recycling and sustainability efforts; 50 percent of which buy local food products, rather than organic; 44 percent use reusable bags at least some times; 89 percent are interested in green products and 30 percent look for them.

"Supermarkets and meat and poultry processing companies try to be very responsive to them," she adds. "Nine of 10 Americans want environmentally friendly items, but 77 percent feel they are expensive. But 60 percent believe food companies are more concerned about sustainability than they were two years ago."

An FMI task force von Zastrow was involved with defined sustainability in the business world as: business strategies and practices promoting the long-term well being of the environment, society and the "bottom line" of companies. She points to positive non-government organization (NGO) and business partnerships, including the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, which works to innovate new, more environmentally friendly packaging.

"We have also developed working groups to help us develop more sustainability policies," von Zastrow says. "They deal with measuring our carbon footprints and how our sustainability policies and activities, including food packaging, affect the entire supply chain, from production, slaughter and processing, to retail. Those areas are where the big opportunities can be found in making sure our business practices tie into a sustainable world."

Bernard Shire is M&P’s Washington correspondent and feature writer based in Lancaster, Pa. With a background in editing and writing for daily news publications, he also works as a food safety consultant and writer for Shire & Associates.