ATLANTA – Sustainability is more than just an industry buzzword, it's a hot topic of interest to hundreds of attendees to Atlanta's 2012 International Poultry Expo and International Feed Expo. Prior to the official opening of the show on Jan. 24, early-bird visitors had the opportunity to attend a two-day summit on sustainability. The conference titled, "Animal Ag Sustainability Summit - Sustainability in Lean Times - Getting Back to Basics" featured speakers from top poultry processing companies, as well as academic and regulatory experts.

The underlying message of the summit could be summarized by GNP Company's Mike Helgeson: "Sustainability is a long-term focus for our company, and should be for everyone in the industry."

Jim Perdue, from Perdue Farms, continued by saying, "The key is to have someone in your business who wakes up every morning thinking about sustainability and how sustainability affects your company.

"You won't make any progress if you don't have someone working on these initiatives full time," he added.

Both Perdue Farms and GNP Company have people in sustainability roles on a full-time basis. However, Helgeson said, even small operations need to have someone in charge and responsible for sustainability, even if it's not all they do at the company.

"It needs to be a part of everyone's job, embedded in the company's ongoing philosophy," he said. "We have expectations of everyone we work with, all our growers. They need to be involved in the process, too — it's the only way that we'll all achieve our goals."

Suzy Friedman, from the Environmental Defense Fund, and Nancy Stoner, acting assistant administrator for the Office of Water at the Environmental Protection Agency, both reminded the audience that governmental agencies also play a huge role in sustainability. "The EPA is here to help," Stoner explained. "We all have the same goals — the poultry industry and government regulators — if we work together we can better achieve our goals."

Helgeson added, "Consumers are a big driver toward sustainability — they want to buy products from companies who are responsible," he said. "We are definitely driven by the marketplace."

However, Helgeson added, by iterating closing message of the summit: Sustainability is quite simply "the right thing to do."