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By Gina-Marie Cheeseman
Our pork chop and bacon habits require a lot of pigs. Which means those in the pork business are in the pregnant sow business. Unfortunately, industry standard “gestation crates” are pretty miserable due to their tiny size.
Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest hog producer, is committed to transitioning all pregnant sows on company-owned farms to group housing systems by the end of 2017. The company is well on its way to meet the goal. As of the end of last year, 87 percent of its company-owned farms house pregnant sows in group systems.
Smithfield recommends that all of its contract sow grocers in the U.S. transition to group housing by the end of 2022. Although it is only a recommendation, the company states in its latest sustainability report that “if growers choose not to participate, their current contracts will remain unchanged, although extensions are less likely.”
Smithfield was first was the first in the industry to make the commitment to transition from gestation crates to group housing. And it is confident it can meet that commitment by the end of this year. “This year is our anniversary year and we believe we are right on track to meet the commitment,” Stewart Leeth, Vice President of Regulatory Affairs and Chief Sustainability Officer of Smithfield Foods told CR Magazine.
About 10 years ago, Smithfield made its commitment to transition to group housing “in large part because many of our customers were asking for this,” Leeth explains. He said that with the new system for the “majority of the time that the animal is pregnant, she’s housed in a group setting.”
Leeth explained how the new housing system works. There are stalls used initially when the animal’s pregnancy is confirmed. Once the sow is confirmed pregnant, she is put into a group housing system. When she is ready to give birth she goes to a separate farm with housing designed for the farrowing, or the birth of the piglets. It is a “stall system where she can lay down and the piglets can move into other areas of the stall so they don’t get hurt or crushed as they sometimes do in the old-fashioned way of raising animals,” Leeth said.
All of the employees on its company-owned farms, its contract hog producers, and plant employees have to follow the Animal Care Management System. Part of that system is what Leeth terms “vigorous auditing.” The farms that the company owns and operates are audited at least once a year. The audits cover things like employee competency on animal handling and husbandry, the equipment, the facilities, management, animal health, veterinary practices, the conditions of the animal, and the outcomes of the farm. “We have third party auditors on our farms, as well,” Leeth added.
Smithfield’s sustainability program is broader than most
Smithfield’s sustainability program is “broader than most,” Leeth said. It encompasses animal care management, worker safety, food safety and community involvement. “But the environment is where it all started,” he added. When Smithfield started its sustainability program it began with a “heavy focus on our environmental compliance issues,” according to Leeth. One of the first steps was to use an environmental management system (EMS) called ISO 14001. It is International Standards Organization’s standard for environmental management.
“We set about and got every one of our farms plants at the time certified, and that’s still the case today,” Leeth said. “We were the first in our industry to do that in terms of livestock and food production.”
Smithfield is “starting to focus more on our own supply chain,” Leeth said. In December 2016, the company announced a new goal to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions 25 percent by 2025 throughout its supply chain. It is the first in its industry to set such a goal. Given the substantial environmental impact of livestock, this commitment represents over four million metric tons of emissions, equivalent to removing 900,000 cars from the road. The commitment is across the company’s supply chain, including on the farms it owns, its processing facilities and its transportation network.
“We’re excited about that because we were the first in our industry to set a 25 percent reduction goal by 2025 over our entire value chain,” Leeth said. “It encompasses our farms, our plants, and our own supply chain.”
Smithfield will achieve its GHG reduction goal through a variety of means, including through using technology that converts manure into energy. On one of its farms in Missouri, manure from two million pigs is being converted into renewable gas. The company is collaborating with a developer that is installing impermeable covers on the lagoons and flare systems on the Missouri farm so renewable natural gas can be collected. The project is expected to produce about 2.2 billion cubic feet of renewable natural gas. That is enough to produce electricity for about 53,000 homes for a year. It will keep also 850,000 tons of methane from entering the atmosphere. Methane is a GHG with a warming potential 23 times that of carbon dioxide.
Smithfield proves that the world’s largest hog producer can treat farm animals humanely and tackle climate change. In short, the company is an industry leader in sustainability.
Image credit: Smithfield Foods