Pork is one of the more unappreciated meats for several reasons. Cultural and religious history have their roles, as well as the history and reputation of the industry. Smithfield Foods, the USA’s pork giant, was in trouble throughout the 1990s and was even sued by a Republican governor’s administration in Virginia for polluting the state’s waterways.
Smithfield, however, has turned a corner and is slowly emerging as a model for sustainability and corporate social responsibility (CSR) throughout the meat processing industry. Some will question whether a company that slaughters 27 million animals a year can truly be a model for corporate social responsibility, but on the metrics front, Smithfield is improving its overall performance.
First, Smithfield has pledged better environmental performance. The company is the first within its industry to achieve ISO 14001 environmental certification for its American processing plants. Since 2007, Smithfield has reduced its water consumption by 15 percent, electricity use by 17 percent, and solid waste generation by over 20 percent. The results achieved a net annual savings of over half a billion gallons of water, 124,000 decatherms in natural gas use, and a 2.2 million kilowatt hours reduction in the consumption of electricity.
Meanwhile, the “S” in CSR applies to the hogs that end up as hams and pork loins. Murphy-Brown, Smithfield’s livestock production subsidiary, has improved animals’ quality of care at its 480 farms. The task is huge: Smithfield and Murphy-Brown sowed the seeds of what is now the Pork Quality Assurance program (PQA), which is committed to the phase out gestation stalls in favor of group housing; more humane methods to deal with sick and injured animals; and a revamp in the way animals are treated in the case of transportation accidents while animals are moved between facilities. Finally, employees at these facilities must complete a rigorous 90 day training period where they learn animal welfare and handling techniques. Temple Grandin, the animal welfare expert who has transformed the way animals are treated at meat production facilities, had this to say about Smithfield’s efforts:
Smithfield’s announcement that it will phase out sow gestation stalls has started an important trend. It has been an industry leader in animal care initiatives, and the conversion of farms to group housing is a welcome development.
The jury is still out on whether these measures will make a long term difference and mollify critics of the meat industry. Despite projects that reduce waste, lower greenhouse gas emissions, and generate biofuels, companies like Smithfield still have a large impact on the planet and the people who work for these companies. Many will also question whether the industry in the long term can be sustainable when massive amounts of corn and soy are necessary to feed the hogs that end up on the dinner table. Nevertheless, companies like Walmart and McDonald’s are pressuring suppliers like Smithfield to clean up their act. Huge steps in both animal welfare and environmental performance have already been taken by Smithfield, and they are in the right direction.