Tyson heightens disclosure on sustainability metrics

Tyson heightens disclosure on sustainability metrics

One of the more visible indicators of how serious a company is about improving its sustainability metrics is the level of scrutiny to which it subjects its operations and business practices. By this measure, Tyson Foods is showing clear progress, although it still has a long way to go when it comes to delivering on its mission.

Tyson has earned its first "A" level from the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) for its 2012 corporate social responsibility (CSR) and sustainability report published this week, signaling an unparalleled degree of transparency and disclosure for the massive meat and poultry company.

This is Tyson's fourth report since 2005. Its most recent publication two years ago earned a "B" level grade, said Kevin Igli, senior vice president and Chief Environmental, Health and Safety Officer for the company, based in Springdale, Ark.

"We still have a lot of work ahead of us, but we have reached some major milestones since our last report," Igli said.

Among the more notable: Tyson has cut its water consumption by nearly 11 percent since 2004 (its reduction level was 7.6 percent as of its last report in 2010), and eliminated more than 145 million over-the-road truck miles since 2011 through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's SmartWay program.

Approximately 2.1 million of those miles were directly linked to new packaging Tyson is using to reduce the size of boxes that transport its meat. By shrinking the corrugated shipping box received by its customers, Tyson was able to eliminate at least 211 truckloads annually, cutting the number of cases needed for product shipment by 20 percent, according to data compiled by the company.

Looking forward, Tyson launched FarmCheck,a program to audit animal treatment practices among the independent farms that supply the company. It is also installing real-time management software with an aim of reducing energy consumption another 10 percent to 20 percent over the next five to 10 years, which will have a positive impact on its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

"Creating access to a steady, nutritious diet for people across the globe requires partnerships throughout the food chain that are built on sustainable, modern agricultural and ethical business practices," said Donnie Smith, Tyson's president and CEO, in remarks prepared for the company's 2012 sustainability report.

Next page:  Safety, the environment, and animal welfare

Difficult balancing act

One of the biggest challenges for any food processing organization is balancing environmental, safety and animal welfare expectations. "There is a natural tension between food safety and water conservation, but we prioritize safety first," Igli said in discussing Tyson's evolving water policies.

The company already requires any processing facility that uses more than one million gallons of water per week to create and follow a written plan, but it also recently created a water council to help perpetuate and share its best practices.

One big focus is wastewater treatment. Tyson runs more than 34 full treatment and 42 pretreatment facilities across North America.  Along with another half-dozen poultry companies, Tyson was sued by rice growers in October 2012  over high levels of organic arsenic found in Arkansas waters. The growers believe the toxin is tied to poultry litter being discharged into the watershed. Tyson denies using feeds that contain arsenic and is defending the charges rigorously.

Tyson's new FarmCheck program, which it began on a trial basis last year with some of the 3,000 independent hog farms that supply the company with pork, is sure to come under particular scrutiny.

Hog farming practices, particularly the practice of confining sows in restrictive gestation cages, have come under sharp criticism this year. The world's largest food distributor, Sysco, last year shunned the practice; Smithfield and Hormel have pledged to end the practice by 2017, and pressure is on Tyson to do the same.

"These audits will give us a chance to correct any minor problems that are discovered and, if necessary, to stop doing business with any farms where animal treatment or conditions do not meet our standards," said Smith when the program was launched last October.

The audits will be extended to chickens and cattle by January 2014. What's more, the company will be transitioning responsibility for carrying them out to third-party personnel, Igli said. Tyson is also in the process of creating an external advisory committee to help steer more research into future animal welfare policies.

Photo of unidentified chicken processing plant provided by Picsfive  via Shutterstock.