Producers celebrate 10 Years of We CareSM and look to take it to the next level
By Darcy Maulsby
Doing what’s best for people, pigs and the planet has been second nature for pig farmers for decades. To demonstrate their commitment to ethical pork production, 10 years ago producers debuted the We Care initiative and pledged support to its six principles.
“Consumers had concerns about farming practices and were asking questions about where their food comes from,” said Leon Sheets, who is the current America’s Pig Farmer of the Year.SM The Ionia, Iowa, producer has a nursery-to-finish pig farm.
“We want people to know that the well-being of people, pigs and the planet is important to farmers and has long been part of our culture,” Sheets said.
“We can’t rest on our laurels or assume that consumer questions about food are just a fad. This is the real deal.”
– Brett Kaysen, Pork Checkoff
We Care’s core set of ethical principles reflects the pork industry’s values in food safety, animal well-being, worker safety, community outreach and protection of both the environment and public health. Ten years later, it remains relevant as consumers, packers, food retailers, foodservice professionals and investors ask key questions about pork:
- What is in my food?
- Where did it come from?
“Expectations are different today than in 2008,” said Bill Even, CEO of the National Pork Board. “A milestone moment such as the 10th anniversary of We Care is a good time to see what is working and to take the initiative to the next level.”
Navigating a Changing Business Environment
So what is working and what could be improved? The Pork Checkoff has been working with the Iowa- based Context Network® to guide the assessment. The company helps ag companies develop solutions to key challenges.
The team spent six months conducting an in-depth analysis of competing proteins and commodity programs, including beef, poultry, dairy and seafood. The analysis looked at how pork compares in market share, sustainability initiatives and other factors, as well as measured metrics involving key pork industry suppliers, including corn and soybeans.
“… the well-being of people, pigs and the planet is important to farmers and has long been part of our culture.”
– Leon Sheets, Iowa
“We need to understand where pork fits so we can be the responsible protein of choice,” Even said.
Major brands, from Tyson to Walmart, are developing their own sustainability goals as part of their corporate strategy. Many of the goals, including reducing greenhouse gas emissions, impact pork production.
“Most companies pursuing sustainability initiatives are publicly traded,” Even said. “Investors want to know how the companies are going to accomplish their goals and how they can verify the numbers.”
The We Care initiative is built on a solid foundation of metrics from the Pork Quality Assurance® Plus (PQA Plus®) and Transport Quality Assurance® (TQA®) programs, as well as on the Common Swine Industry Audit. But now the pork industry needs to do more to show the progress being made, Even said.
“We need to take credit for what we have done and highlight what we are continuing to do regarding sustainability,” Even said.
Brett Kaysen, the Pork Checkoff’s assistant vice president of sustainability, agrees.
“Consumers worldwide want to know what is in their food and how it was produced. Both here and abroad, U.S. pork has a fantastic story to tell through We Care 2.0.”
– Bill Even, National Pork Board CEO
“Consumers have new expectations relative to their food,” Kaysen said. “It is time to shift the We Care initiative from inward facing to more outward facing as we amplify pork producers’ successes and identify gaps for improvement.”
Unlike some organizations that “greenwash” by presenting an environmentally responsible – but misleading – public image, the pork industry walks the talk, Kaysen noted.
“We are ahead of the curve in the sustainability space, but other proteins are getting on board,” he said. “We can‘t rest on our laurels or assume that consumer questions about food are just a fad. This is the real deal.”
Taking a Proactive Seat at the Table
Going forward, it is important to acknowledge that the pork industry’s environmental footprint depends not only on pig farmers’ actions, but also on corn and soybean growers who supply raw materials for swine feed. Enter We Care 2.0.
“Because we recognize the need to collaborate more with corn and soybean growers, we are working with these groups on research to improve sustainability throughout our supply chain,” Even said.
This story must be supported with verifiable, meaningful metrics. The Checkoff’s strategic plan calls for reducing the pork industry’s carbon footprint and water usage by 5 percent by 2020.
“But are these levels too low? Some outsiders would say so,” Even said.
To gain more clarity, the National Pork Board has created a We Care task force (see sidebar). It also is organizing advisory groups to bring more voices into the discussion, from foodservice experts to non-governmental organizations.
“In addition to listening to outside perspectives, pig farmers want to determine what is possible and realistic on the farm to meet sustainability goals.” Kaysen said. “It is a fun journey, because farmers have a seat at the table to shape their future.”
The proactive approach will give U.S. pork a competitive advantage domestically and internationally, from established markets such as Japan to emerging markets in Asia to Latin America.
“In consumers’ minds, good quality, price and consistency are a given,” Even said. “Consumers worldwide also want to know what is in their food and how it was produced. Both here and abroad, U.S. pork has a fantastic story to tell through We Care 2.0.”
Continuous improvement will drive the We Care initiative as it evolves and expands, Sheets said.
“As farmers, we are always looking for ways to produce better pork,” Sheets said. “This benefits us and helps the next generation succeed, too, as we meet changing customer expectations.”