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Article: Pork sector focused on sustainability innovation post COVID-19

30 June 2020

As the pork sector emerges from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, innovation with a focus on sustainability is a major priority for the industry according to National Pork Board (NPB) CEO Bill Even and Smithfield Foods Executive Vice President of Fresh Pork Sales and Marketing Joe Weber.

Despite challenges on the supply side, including meat plant shutdowns that saw some farmers forced to cull hogs unable to be processed, "our pork sales have tripled" during the COVID-19 pandemic, Even said. "Our big footprint is generally in the I would say in the grocery aisle, and so that really helped us out there" as more consumers purchased food for consumption at home during pandemic related lockdowns," he explained.

"What you saw, both in the US as well as around the world, was people immediately trying to find things that were familiar or fresh, were things that they knew were going to provide them protein," Even said.

The pandemic underscored the "just-in-time" nature of the food supply chain, Weber said. "As a society, we've got to think about that going forward and how we adapt," he noted, adding a prediction that stronger relationships across the food supply system will be key to that discussion.

Looking ahead, NPB polling shows 89% of consumers are interested in how the industry will fix supply chain issues laid bare during the pandemic, and nearly three-quarters are supportive of change even if it increases the cost of pork, Even noted.

Automation and robotics are one area that the industry is already looking to leverage towards greater supply chain integrity, Even and Weber said. "I think everyone's trying to work on automation and robotics and that's going to continue," Weber remarked. "It's going to be further continued as you think about COVID-19."

Consumers interested in sustainability

Using blockchain is among the innovations the pork industry is already working on, Even said. "The National Pork Board and the pork producers paid for the creation of a new blockchain traceability pilot, where we looked at tracking our sustainability metrics from the farm all the way through the production system and on out to the consumer," he detailed.

Sustainably produced foods is part of a longer-term shift in consumer preferences, Even said. Two-thirds of consumers "regularly or sometimes think about the environmental footprint when they're thinking about getting their food," he noted. "There's a need for us to innovate in this sector if we're going to meet the demands of the consumer post-COVID."

At Smithfield, Weber revealed that "one of the most exciting things is our commitment to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by 25% by the year 2025." One way the company is looking to meet that goal is through the deployment of methane recovery systems, he observed. "We've covered some of these hog lagoons and [are] taking hog waste, digesting it and making renewable energy and natural gas and selling it back into the pipelines," Weber stated. "And we're doing that across four or five different states, it's an exciting project."

One important aspect of the sustainability push is measuring results, Even commented. To help quantify things, he said NPB has created a calculator detailing the sector's contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. "Livestock agriculture accounts for about 9% of US greenhouse gas emissions. I think that surprises a lot of people that were we're not the demon in the middle of this, but we've got a role to play," he remarked. For the pork industry specifically, the contribution is about 0.3%, which he called "pretty close to neutral."

As the industry looks to achieve complete carbon neutrality, Even said NPB has partnered with corn and soybean groups since about 60% of the pork sector's carbon footprint is linked to feed. "Everybody's got to do their part if we're going to change the end result and be able to put something on a package label for the consumer" verifying the product is carbon neutral, he added.

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