Protein processors are helping lead the sustainability movement
By Kathleen Furore
Way back in late 2010, Michele Boney—Director of Environmental, Health & Safety at West Liberty Foods—got a call from company President and CEO Ed Garrett.
“He had attended a ‘best practices’ meeting and saw a Frito Lay presentation on zero waste. He was so impressed that he called me on his way home from that meeting and said, ‘Do you think we could do a zero waste program?’” Boney recalls. “I said, ‘Why not?’ and he said, ‘Then let’s do it in a year!’”
West Liberty did just that: Within a year, the company’s then three existing plants—one in Tremonton Utah, one in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, and one in West Liberty, Iowa—were classified as landfill-free. To earn this distinction, less than 1 percent of a company’s waste can end up in a landfill.
Fast forward to 2018. Not only is West Liberty the first manufacturer of its size to be verified as landfill-free by the global public health and safety organization NSF International Strategic Registrations (NSF-ISR), but, in September, the company learned it had achieved Gold Status from EcoVadis, an internationally respected provider of business sustainability ratings.
“We got a note from one of our customers saying that we are the first protein processor to get the gold ranking,” Boney says.
Chief Executive Officer of West Liberty Foods
Why it Matters
There’s no denying that sustainability has become an important topic throughout the food supply chain.
In fact, the food and beverage category “is central to consumers’ perceptions of sustainability,” says Sustainability 2017, a report from The Hartman Group that tracked consumers’ understanding of and attitudes about sustainability. “Consumers today increasingly view sustainability and corporate responsibility—from organic ingredients to animal welfare to company treatment of employees and energy conservation—as aspects of quality, not just a ‘feel good factor.’”
And more than they ever have in the past, considerations about sustainability and corporate responsibility are significantly impacting what shoppers buy.
According to Hartman research, 56 percent of consumers said they were familiar with the term sustainability in 2008; that number comes in at 83 percent today.
“Sustainability plays a significant role in influencing purchase decisions,” Hartman reports. Twenty-six percent of consumers say environmental and social concerns impact much of their purchasing, and 22 percent say they have increased their sustainable purchasing this past year, the company’s Sustainability 2017 report shows.
That means adopting sustainable business practices is a step companies must soon take if they are hoping to capture today’s environmentally-conscious consumers.
“Sustainability is becoming an ever more important facet of doing business for US food manufacturers,” a March 1, 2018, post titled, “The growing consumer pull for sustainable food in the US,” at just-food.com notes. “This can be seen in business-to-business terms as companies adapt practices and reform relationships with partners to take greater account of environmental and ethical factors.”
Charts courtesy of the WLF 2017 Sustainability Report.
Protein Processors Leading the Way
Deli meat manufacturers are among companies leading the way in the sustainability arena.
West Liberty, for example, “has always been on some kind of sustainability initiative since 2000,” Boney reports. “We actually helped create the landfill-free verification process,” she adds. “We helped NSF International create it and now several other companies have become verified. We feel pretty proud about that!”
In addition, Boney says the EPA invited West Liberty “to be part of a group of companies to develop an environmental management system and that drove us on our sustainability tour to reduce electricity usage, water usage and to develop important processes and procedures.”
To that end, “…waste that cannot be recycled, reused or composted goes to waste-to-energy incinerators that generate steam and electricity,” West Liberty’s 2017 Sustainability Report says. “To address consumption at the source, core teams at each facility work to reduce our usage of water, electricity, natural gas, paper, cardboard and plastic.”
Responsible farming is another of West Liberty Foods’ sustainability initiatives. The company, which is owned
by the Iowa Turkey Growers Cooperative and is a member of the National Turkey Federation (NTF) surveyed the growers to find out more about their sustainability practices.
Seventeen of the West Liberty growers, representing 30 percent of the company’s turkey supply, responded to the survey—and 100 percent of those respondents use energy practices or technologies.
“We are very proud of the engagement and response our growers have on sustainability,” the West Liberty Sustainability Report notes. The company also uses NTF’s Guidelines on Animal Care for the Production of Turkeys, and practices humane handling, subdued lighting, and proper ventilation to decrease stress and ensure the animals’ well-being.
Smithfield Foods is another industry leader in the sustainability movement.
“In 2016, we became the first protein company to announce a goal to significantly reduce absolute greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Our target of a 25 percent reduction by 2025 is the equivalent of removing 900,000 cars from our roadways,” the company notes in its 2017 Sustainability Report. “To help us get there, we launched Smithfield Renewables, our new platform which unifies and accelerates our carbon reduction and renewable energy efforts including pioneering projects that transform manure into renewable natural gas.”
Other initiatives include Smithfield Bioscience, which is taking a leadership position in leveraging by products from the meat production process for the development of pharmaceuticals, nutraceuticals, and medical devices.
In addition, Smithfield is “making great strides in reducing our demand for water, energy, and solid waste,” and eight Smithfield facilities were certified zero waste to landfill in 2017
The Dollars and Sense Impact
Not only is dedication to sustainable manufacturing a good customer relations move; it can significantly impact a company’s finances, as well.
“In general, people don’t look at waste as something they can save money on—they think it is just the cost of doing business,” Boney says. “But you can save money with sustainable practices and by developing alternative ways to remove waste—or to not even have waste to begin with.”
Slicing can play a role in the sustainability initiatives protein processors undertake; and slicing manufacturers like Weber can help their clients achieve sustainability goals.
Director of Environmental, Health & Safety at West Liberty Foods
“The slicing lines use energy, and there is always some waste in the portioning process,” Boney explains.“We try to work with manufacturers and see if they can help us to maximize our investments in natural resources and raw materials involved in our processes,” she says.
Whatever steps protein processors take on the road to a sustainable future, one thing is clear: those companies that do the best job of incorporating sustainability practices into their business plans will be at a competitive advantage in the years to come.
As the March 1, 2018 -food.com post concludes, “…the close rapport US consumers feel with familiar brands may put US food companies in a relatively strong position when it comes to communicating the sustainability attributes of their products and seeking to make sustainable values intrinsic to their brands.”