4 keys to achieve sustainability in poultry production

Top U.S. poultry producers tell how to define and measure sustainable poultry production though engagement, transparency, prioritization and education.

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Poultry sustainability panel (left to right): Paul Helgeson, GNP Company; Langford Ruffin, Butterball; Jamie Burr, Tyson Foods; and Cameron Bruett, JBS USA/Pilgrim’s.
Poultry sustainability panel (left to right): Paul Helgeson, GNP Company; Langford Ruffin, Butterball; Jamie Burr, Tyson Foods; and Cameron Bruett, JBS USA/Pilgrim’s.

Poultry industry managers responsible for sustainability efforts at leading U.S. chicken and turkey production companies participated in a panel discussion at the 2015 International Production and Processing Expo (IPPE), during which they offered advice on how to successfully engage the poultry industry, customers and consumers in the sustainability process.

Sustainability managers from Tyson Foods, Pilgrim’s, Butterball and GNP Company know sustainability as well as experts in any field of food production, but listening to their discussion of poultry industry sustainability was a little like hearing them tell of tracking an elusive beast only glimpsed in the wild and never held in captivity.

Answers to basic questions about sustainability, in fact, can be elusive:

  • What is sustainability in poultry production?
  • How should poultry producers measure and manage sustainability in their operations?
  • What’s real in sustainability, and what’s merely illusion?

It’s the nature of sustainability in poultry production to be defined and measured differently by different stakeholders and constantly evolving.

What is sustainability in poultry production?

Sustainability is a “critical issue” for Pilgrim’s and other poultry and meat companies “as we try to feed the world going forward to responsibly use our natural resources today so the next generation can responsibly use them in the future,” said Cameron Bruett, head of corporate affairs at JBS USA and Pilgrim’s.
Bruett is a member of the U.S. Poultry & Egg Association’s environmental and sustainability work group and also is the president of the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef.

“I take a holistic approach to sustainability, and helped with the National Pork Board’s effort, which I thought was very balanced, looking at social, environmental and economic concerns. It’s the same approach we take at the Global Round Table for Sustainable Beef, and it looks to be the approach that the poultry industry is taking as well,” he said.

Sustainable poultry production, the panelists agreed, is the responsible use of the natural resources of water, air, energy and grain crops for feeding animals, as well as the animals, themselves, in terms of their well-being. It also includes, they said, protecting and caring for the people who make up the workforces that grow the crops and animals and process the poultry products.

How is sustainability in poultry production measured?

As straightforward as those definitions of sustainability might seem, putting sustainability into practice is challenging. Measuring and managing sustainability efforts and risk to profitability are among the challenges faced by poultry producers.

Jamie Burr, environmental health and safety manager, Tyson Foods, said, “There is interest on the part of customers and consumers in knowing about sustainability all the way down to the farm level, whether it is feed efficiency or practices to insure the welfare of the animals.”

Bruett said there is a risk to long-term profitability that must be addressed through sustainable poultry production.

“The interest in poultry sustainability goes to where the risk is, to where the vulnerability is. Today, the interest might be at the farm level on animal welfare. That doesn’t necessarily mean that will be the focus in 10 years. Sustainability focuses on the hotspots in the entire value chain, including the ultimate disposition and consumption of the product,” he said.

Paul Helgeson, sustainability manager at GNP Company, said the poultry industry’s responsibility for sustainability includes the sourcing of feed ingredients. “It’s challenging to get higher environmental performance feed ingredients because most of the ingredients are commodities, corn and so and on.”

Langford Ruffin, corporate environmental manager, Butterball, said the public’s interest in sustainability issues is broad. “Animal welfare is a big concern among customers and consumers, but the new generation of young kids, for example, are asking questions not only about how we take care of the turkeys but also about things like how much energy we use.”

The panel of chicken and turkey producers identified the following four keys for success for sustainable poultry production.

What’s the ultimate poultry sustainability?

Helgeson said the poultry industry should set aggressive sustainability goals.

“What I don’t know is the opportunity for how sustainable the food system or the poultry industry can be,” he said. “What is that ultimate sustainability? I don’t know if it’s possible to calculate it, but when we’re setting aggressive but achievable goals, I want to approach it in an ambitious manner."

Whether or not there is a calculable level of sustainability for poultry production, the panelists agreed sustainability in poultry production is a journey not a destination, and poultry producers must be committed to it and work to bring others along on the journey.

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