Evolving into a better corporate citizen has become the goal of many meat and poultry processors in recent years. Customers and consumers expect no less and the growing list of their achievements is impressive.

For example, Marfrig Group, based in Sáo Paulo, Brazil, was the first animal-protein manufacturer in the world to begin mapping greenhouse gases throughout its supply chain. Marfrig asked its suppliers to answer a questionnaire created by the Carbon Disclosure Project’s supply chain program, which is one way climate change information is reported, according to Clever Pirola Avila, director of sustainability at the company.

“This is a major step for our company in reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” Avila says. “That’s because 95 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in our production chain come not from our direct operations, but from our supply chain,” he says.

This marks the first time Marfrig is getting information from its suppliers by means of its Carbon Disclosure Project, Avila says. He adds the company plans to talk to its suppliers and jointly created a plan to develop both products and plant processes that will result in smaller ‘carbon footprints’.

The greenhouse mapping project is one of a number of sustainability steps the company has taken. Areas Marfrig concentrates on include environmental, social, economic, value-chain, product and technology.

The company found the 95.5 percent spread of gas emissions from doing the inventory with its suppliers. The next step will be a workshop to identify opportunities and define goals in reducing the emissions. Greenhouse gases can affect the operations of large companies like Marfrig “because climate change affects agricultural production and impacts our operations,” Avila says. He adds goals to reduce these problems have been developed through the year 2020.

“We’ve inventoried three major areas – greenhouse gases, water and wood,” he adds. “We are learning how to make our operations more sustainable on a daily basis.”

Marfrig, which also has operations in the United States, Mexico, other parts of South America, Europe, Africa and Asia, is one of many companies taking steps to move ahead and increase its sustainability practices.

In early February, Springdale, Ark.-based Tyson Foods Inc. announced it received an “A” from the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) for its latest corporate social responsibility report. The sustainability report is Tyson’s fourth since 2005, but is the first to receive the GRI’s Application Level “A.” GRI is a world-recognized organization promoting economic, environmental and social sustainability. 

The 2012 Tyson Foods Sustainability Report documents the company’s progress from 2010-2012 regarding people, planet, profit and products.

Sustainability plan

Another company with a strong sustainability plan is Smithfield, Va.-based Smithfield Foods Inc. Smithfield’s efforts are led by Dennis Treacy, executive vice president and chief sustainability officer and former director of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.

“When I came here, the company was in the midst of experiencing environmental problems, largely water pollutions issues,” Treacy says. Now the company is in its third year of its new sustainability management system.

Operating in a decentralized way, Smithfield began setting goals and expectations for its member companies. A bar is set and it is up to the companies to achieve the goals. This is done through sustainability competitions, recognition and award programs. Definite goals are set and achieved.

“One example is under animal welfare – our transition away from gestation stalls to pens by 2017, and that’s on course to happen,” he says. “Another is under food safety – our goal is no recalls. A third is worker safety – including injury prevention. So far, there’s been a huge drop in injuries.”

He says a former worker-safety goal, to exceed meat-safety standards, has been modified with the goal of leading the industry in this category. Another effort, to feed hungry people in the US, is being met by working with food banks around the country.

“We’ve set goals for each of our plants to talk to their communities and demystify meat. There are no secrets anymore. So, when consumers and customers visit plants, they’re shocked to see lots of stainless steel equipment and safety equipment on our employees, not scenes from ‘The Jungle’,” Treacy says.

Smithfield also works with its contract producers and farmers to adhere to the company’s animal-welfare program. “Farmers are responsible for their own property and activities – we don’t impose requirements on them, but we let them know what our expectations are, and our contractors carry them out on their own,” Treacy says.

One tough sustainability and environmental challenge for Smithfield and other meat and poultry processors is the rapid disappearance of rural areas throughout the US. “Some of our meat plants have been overtaken by cities and suburban areas,” Treacy says. “This is an ever-increasing challenge. People move into a suburban area, not realizing there’s a meat-processing plant over the hill. Some of these new residents have never been in rural areas before. So, we go out of our way to make sure our neighbors know who we are, and what we do.”

Part of the reason for this trend is the decreasing number of people involved in agriculture and agri-business in the US, Treacy explains. “Two-hundred years ago, agriculture was this country’s densest industry, a way of life for a high percentage of people in this country. Today, about 2 percent of Americans are working in agriculture or in industry related to it.”

A major endeavor

Austin, Minn.-based Hormel Foods is another company that has taken on corporate responsibility and sustainability. In its 2011 Corporate Responsibility Report, Hormel demonstrated how it has progressed toward goals, while outlining what steps it plans to take toward making its operations more sustainable. The areas Hormel is concerned about include how it contributes to the communities where it operates, animal care, the environment, workplace diversity, food quality and safety, health and wellness, and the code of ethics it operates under.

Sustainability is part of its “Elevate the Everyday, Our Way,” value platform. The company also has established the Hormel Foods Supplier Responsibility Principles, a set of guidelines and expectations it asks its suppliers to follow. For example, for the independent family farmers who supply most of Hormel’s hogs, the company requires producers and producers’ employees who work with animals to participate in industry training and education programs.

Hormel Foods has been listed on the Dow Jones Sustainability Index since 2011, reflecting an ongoing commitment to corporate responsibility in the areas of people, products, process, performance and philanthropy, according to Thomas Raymond, director of environmental sustainability. The company was also awarded LEED gold certification, and has completed its first set of five-year environmental goals, including reducing water consumption by 15 percent, reducing packaging by 21.8 million lbs. and achieving solid waste minimization goals. Raymond says the company decreased greenhouse gas emissions by 5 percent across 41 US plants.

“We also consider food safety and employee safety part of our sustainability program, and community involvement is also part of it,” Raymond says. Community activities include hunger, education, and supporting local plant communities.

While Hormel did not reach its energy reduction goal established in 2006, it did realize significant benefits in energy savings. “We established a new energy goal, which began in fiscal year 2012 and will be reported in the 2012 Hormel Foods Corporate Responsibility Report,” Raymond said.

Recently, officials with West Liberty, Iowa-based West Liberty Foods LLC announced its Mount Pleasant, Iowa, meat-producing plant has earned the designation of operating a “landfill-free” plant by eliminating more than 2 million lbs. of waste previously dropped in a local landfill each year. The company’s landfill-free status was verified by NSF International Strategic Registrations Ltd.

Another sustainability achiever is Greeley, Colo.-based JBS USA, a subsidiary of JBS SA. The company won the McDonald’s 2012 “Best of Sustainable Supply” award. McDonald’s recognized JBS for two sustainability projects resulting in improvements in water conservation and waste reduction. Other companies are also cutting back the use of film in packaging, and shifting to recyclable packaging.

Bernard Shire is based in Lancaster, Pa. He also works as a food safety consultant and writer for Shire & Associates LLC.