Awareness of the essential connection between the environment and the human future has been in a growth curve since the 1960s, fueling a movement toward a sustainable relationship with the natural world. For its part, the animal protein industry has not always produced an acceptable track record in the area of environmental affairs.
Several companies have been cited and fined for polluting waterways in previous years. At the same time, many others have become more proactive by establishing self-directed environment-protection initiatives. To be sure, the animal protein industry allocates millions of dollars in their operating budgets to clean and keep the environment in which they operate in pristine condition.
Even so, challenges continue. Consider that a settlement of a nine-year-old lawsuit filed by the state of Illinois against IBP Inc. â€” acquired by Tyson Foods Inc. in 2001 â€” was reached in 2007.
More recently, a settlement was reached in an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) case against Toppenish, Wash.-based Washington Beef covering three years from 2004 to 2007. The company was charged with using anhydrous ammonia for refrigeration purposes at levels unacceptable to comply with the Clean Air Act. Specifically, EPA determined that Washington Beef failed to comply with several risk-management program requirements and, in addition to instituting a penalty, the agency ordered the company to install a new internal ammonia alarm system and related safety equipment.
JBS Swift & Co., the Greeley, Colo.-based subsidiary of Brazilian beef giant JBS S.A., also has encountered legal problems related to an environmental complaint. The Louisville Metro Air Pollution Control Board imposed a fine and ordered the company to make scrubber and condenser updates at its Louisville, Ky., rendering operations to reduce odor emissions. The plant was charged with failing to provide timely notice concerning excess emissions resulting from an upset of equipment and operated outside its permits.
Processors make a mark
In its 2008 corporate responsibility report, Austin, Minn.-based Hormel Foods Corp. detailed its sustainability platform, which includes its plans concerning employees, the environment, animal welfare, food safety, ethical business conduct and philanthropic activities.
Hormel Foods established environmental data benchmarks for all 41 U.S. manufacturing locations in November 2007 and continues to implement the highest animal welfare practices in the industry. The company reported on progress toward achieving its 2007 goals related to water use, energy use, solid waste reduction and air emissions.
In 2008, Hormel Foods exceeded its water-use-reduction target and completed 44 packaging reduction projects. Regarding animal welfare, the company opened a state-of-the-art hog holding facility at its plant in Austin. Also in 2008, Hormel 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 Foods is committed to the principles of integrity and quality established by our founder 117 years ago,” said Jeffrey M Ettinger, chairman of the board, president and chief executive officer at Hormel Foods. “In our corporate responsibility report, we have highlighted our successes, but also identified new issues we should address, and most importantly, opportunities to move us forward through growth and innovation.”
In line with its “sustainability and stewardship” program, Guymon, Okla.-based Seaboard Foods established a plan incorporating six key core commitments to quality, customers, employees, community, animal care and environmental stewardship in 2008.
As part of its sustainability commitment, also last year Seaboard formed High Plains Bioenergy, a subsidiary committed to creating sustainable energy solutions from the Seaboard Foods integrated food system. The 30-million-gallon-per-year biodiesel operation in Guymon is adjacent to the company’s pork-processing plant, which uses pork fat to manufacture renewable, clean-burning biodiesel.
“From the very beginning in the early 1990s, Seaboard Farms has strived to be a good corporate citizen while building a sustainable company for our customers, employees and communities,” reports Rod Brenneman, president of Seaboard Foods and High Plains Bioenergy. “The biodiesel plant is one of the higher-profile sustainable business practices.”
Aside from biodiesel, Seaboard also committed to reducing water on company-owned farms by 40 percent between 2000 and 2005 and composting solid waste from sow farms to produce nearly 700 tons annually.
Retail and foodservice industry contributions
The Food Marketing Institute (FMI), which represents food retailers and wholesalers, recently announced that it plans to work in partnership with the seafood industry, environmental organizations and other experts to develop guidelines to promote the long-term viability of the world’s seafood supply.
“The industry recognizes that sustaining the world’s fisheries is critical to preserving the environment. It is also essential that supermarkets provide customers the variety of seafood needed for a healthy diet,” reports Leslie G. Sarasin, FMI president and chief executive officer.
This policy grew out of an initiative by the FMI Sustainable Seafood Working Group, part of its Sustainability Task Force, formed in 2007 to identify issues that can be resolved on an industry-wide basis. (Note: FMI’s 2009 Sustainability Summit is scheduled for August 17-19 at the Hyatt Regency in San Francisco.)
For its part, Vernon, Calif.-based sandwich chain Subway® “is slimming down and greening up” its plastic salad bowls and lids.
“Our business is about serving convenient, yet healthy foods. We have a responsibility to reduce our impact on the environment so that we can continue to serve people around the world in a sustainable way,” reports Elizabeth Stewart, Subway world headquarters spokesperson and director of marketing & sustainability. “Simple actions can create the greatest change. By switching our salad bowl materials to a more environmentally friendly profile and reducing the amount of plastic needed to produce them, we can attain significant conservation of our natural resources.”
The changes are designed to reduce the amount of plastic material used annually by 711,780 pounds and save the equivalent of 5,488 barrels of oil annually. Subway also intends to reduce 19,540 cases of corrugate annually while also reducing the carbon footprint by 20.9 percent or 84.8 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) per thousand containers produced.
To be sure, sustaining the environment is fast becoming a mandatory model for business programs among all sectors. Reducing landfill waste is one way of doing the right thing for the environment. Source reduction is but one spoke in the rolling wheel of environmental protection, however, for there are other means that experts say do not have to impede business growth â€” welcome news these days as businesses across the board are in large measure cutting operating costs to sustain business programs.
No environmental pursuit is worth the effort absent proposed solutions for critical issues concerning agribusiness, food, water, energy, climate changes and land management. These are all good reasons for the growing role science and technology play in current research and development programs â€” whether the issues relate to food vs. fuel concerns, recycling and waste management or public policy measures that help rather than hurt innovations in the private sector.
Recycling through rendering
The sophisticated disposal of inedible animal material is a rendering industry sustainable solution that is decades old. The National Renderers Association (NRA) has represented renderers for 76 years. Rendering plants transform slaughter byproducts and animals unsuitable for human consumption into animal feed products using grinding, cooking and pressing processes.
“The animal and food byproduct recycling industry is ‘mission critical’ in the food supply chain and is the most efficient and environmentally sound disposal alternative for a sustainable society,” confirms Randall C. Stuewe, chief executive officer of Darling International Inc. “If not recycled, the large amounts of carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus present in inedible animal byproducts may contribute to global warming, soil loading and water contamination. Processing equipment and treatment processes minimize the discharge impact on the local environs’ air and water.”
The U.S. Poultry & Egg Association sponsored an “Animal Agriculture Environmental Sustainability Summit” in January 2009 at the World Congress Center in Atlanta. Leading industry experts and representatives from the retail and foodservice sectors identified and addressed future challenges as they relate to sustainability and protecting the environment. Stuewe was among the speakers at the event.
“Industry safety and responsibility sanitizes and recycles more than 54 billion pounds of inedible materials generated each year by animal production and meat industries,” he reported. “Such materials spoil easily and make an excellent media for pathogens to grow and multiply. Temperatures used during rendering processing are more than adequate to kill conventional disease-causing organisms.”
According to the NRA, 50 percent of inedible byproducts come from cattle, 28 percent from poultry and 22 percent from swine, for a total of more than 54 billion pounds being generated annually from meat and poultry processors and retail food stores.
The seminal government program for agricultural sustainability appeared in an “agricultural productivity” provision of the 1985 farm bill. It was supported by a coalition made up of conventional farmers concerned about the farm financial crisis and the economic viability of farming.
They were joined by organic farming advocates interested in the impacts of conventional agriculture on soil productivity and environmental quality, and rural advocacy organizations battling economic and environmental impacts of agriculture on rural communities.
The Low Input Sustainable Agriculture (LISA) program, which grew out of the provision, was retained and expanded in the 1990 farm bill along with a name change to Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE). It has continued to receive minimal funding in each farm bill since, including the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008.
In addressing the concept of sustainable agriculture in its Food, Agriculture, Conservation, and Trade Act (FACTA) of 1990, Congress institutionalized the term sustainability. Under FACTA sustainable agriculture is defined as an integrated system of plant and animal production practices with a site-specific application intended, over the long term to accomplish the following:
- Satisfy human food and fiber needs;
- Enhance environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which the agricultural economy depends;
- Make the most efficient use of non-renewable resources and on-farm resources and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls;
- Sustain the economic viability of farm operations; and
- Enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.
Six years later in 1996, Daniel Glickman, serving as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, issued a memorandum that strengthened the Clinton administration’s determination to lead the nation toward a culture of sustainability.
“USDA is committed to working toward the economic, environmental, and social sustainability of diverse food, fiber, agriculture, forest, and range systems, “Glickman stated. “USDA will balance goals of improved production and profitability, stewardship of the natural resource base and ecological systems, and enhancement of the vitality of rural communities. USDA will integrate these goals into its policies and programs, particularly through interagency collaboration, partnerships and outreach.” [Secretary’s Memorandum 9500-6: Sustainable Development (U.S. Department of Agriculture, Office of the Secretary, Sept. 13, 1996)]