Making Poultry Safe for Consumers and the Planet

Sanderson Farms examines the connection between food safety and sustainability efforts.

Producing products that are safe for consumers has long been a basic requirement for food companies. In recent years, as conversations about climate change take center stage and awareness of the food industry’s impact on the environment increases, food companies have taken meaningful steps to reduce their operations’ impact on the planet. Food safety and sustainability initiatives go hand in hand, as both center on risk management and harm prevention. Both require a science-based approach and must be incorporated into all aspects of the supply chain to achieve successful results.

For poultry production, food safety begins on farms and is initially achieved through biosecurity measures. These strict procedures help ensure bird health, as well as human health, by reducing the number of pathogens that enter the supply chain. Without attention to food safety, it is impossible for a company to prevent waste of valuable resources. In fact, healthier chicken requires less electricity, water, feed, and other resources to grow to a market weight. A successful company will have both food safety and sustainability as core tenets of its corporate responsibility programs. These are the cornerstones of Sanderson Farms’ approach to food production.

Sanderson Farms Inc., founded in 1947, produces, processes, markets, and distributes fresh and frozen chicken and other prepared food items. Employing more than 18,000 employees in operations spanning five states, Sanderson Farms is the third-largest poultry producer in the United States.

Both food safety and sustainability factor into Sanderson Farms’ biosecurity program. “Biosecurity” refers to the procedures intended to protect humans and animals against disease, such as workers’ wearing clean clothing and disinfecting shoes before and after coming into contact with the flock. Poultry raised for commercial food production is housed in structures specially engineered for protection against biosecurity risks, as well as predators.

Biosecurity can be defined simply as the procedures put in place to reduce the risk of disease in a population of animals. Because every encounter with another living creature is an opportunity to expose the chickens to disease-causing agents, all other living things should only be on a farm that houses Sanderson Farms chickens as is necessary for the well-being of the flock.

Not only is food safety threatened when birds become ill, but sustainability is also at risk. Failure to follow biosecurity procedures can lead to decreased bird growth and increased mortality. In severe situations, such as widespread outbreaks of disease, flocks across entire geographical regions must be culled, impacting the economy and wasting valuable resources.

To avoid the potentially devastating ramifications caused by widespread poultry illness, Sanderson Farms works closely with farmers and production employees to ensure biosecurity measures are in place. These procedures are carefully implemented with the goal of limiting the introduction and potential spread of any disease-causing agents. The company’s biosecurity program has exact specifications for pullet, breeder, and broiler farms.

The biosecurity program is only as good as its implementation, and breaches in protocol can create disastrous results. At Sanderson Farms, we work together to follow all biosecurity procedures and best practices to protect our flocks from illnesses. The future success of the company depends on it.

After chicken leaves the farm, it is inspected at each step of processing for quality, food safety, and compliance with regulations. Sanderson Farms’ performance standards often go beyond U.S. Department of Agriculture requirements to ensure consumers receive the highest-quality products available. Because the company operates its own hatcheries and formulates its own feed, Sanderson Farms can control as much of the product’s environment as possible.

Although the company has grown significantly since its founding, Sanderson still adheres to its founding values of honesty, integrity, and innovation. Sanderson Farms is continually making improvements to its food safety programs and goes above and beyond expectations. Our food safety efforts are in line with the company’s core values to give our customers the safest product on the market. We want our customer to have 100 percent confidence that ours is the best product for their families.

Farmers have long been shining examples of conservation and stewardship of environmental resources. In the last decade, companies have begun following suit in their efforts to make food production more sustainable, using fewer resources and, ultimately, cutting costs.

According to Pew Research Center, the population of the United States will rise by 142 million by 2050.1 To provide food for an increasingly large population, companies will have to optimize operations to ensure our planet’s resources are not exhausted.

Sustainability and compliance are not efforts led by the contributions of one or even a few qualified individuals. It takes the concerted efforts of each and every person within the company to make an impact.

In 2008, Sanderson Farms began tracking the daily usage of electricity, gas, and water at each of its poultry complexes. Each year, the company reviews these results and sets new, aggressive goals to reduce environmental impact. Across the board, Sanderson Farms has made significant gains in conservation over time. Compared with baseline values established in 2008, the company has achieved a 20 percent reduction in electricity usage, 35 percent reduction in natural gas usage, and 40 percent reduction in water usage.

Chickens are more efficient than other food animals in converting feed into meat protein, which reduces the amount of resources, land, and energy required. No other animal protein source can yield 10,000 pounds of salable meat for every 2.3 acres of harvested soybeans and 1.6 acres of harvested corn.

Since the late 1950s, the poultry industry has halved the amount of grain necessary to produce a salable pound of poultry in the United States. This reduction in resources required to raise chicken was achieved through selective breeding, feed optimization, and increased efficiency in production.

Sanderson Farms’ growth over the past two decades is the result of many years of research, planning, hard work, and determination. We strategically select sites to build the most innovative and environmentally sustainable facilities in the poultry industry.

Sanderson Farms utilizes several methods, such as ultraviolet disinfection, to treat wastewater so it can be discharged directly into streams or applied to land application systems. This advanced process allows the company to replenish natural water sources, support stream flow, organically fertilize farmland, and irrigate crops. Since 2008, Sanderson Farms has won 13 awards for water conservation and wastewater treatment.

At Sanderson Farms’ wastewater treatment facilities, we aim to minimize the company’s impact on surrounding natural resources by preserving and returning to the environment what the company has utilized throughout our operations.

Wastewater processing also allows Sanderson Farms to utilize another valuable resource—renewable energy. Biogas generated during wastewater treatment is captured and treated in the company’s pressure swing adsorption system, resulting in pipeline-quality gas that can be used across Sanderson Farms’ poultry operations. In 2019 alone, the amount of biogas generated could supply the company’s Laurel, MS, poultry complex with gas for approximately 2 years. This resourcefulness typifies Sanderson Farms’ commitment to adopting a fresh approach in everything we do. Not only where products are concerned but companywide as well.

A truly responsible company will take to heart the true goal of sustainability: meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

A key part of our strategic plan has always been emphasis on our environmental and social responsibilities. We believe that continuing to prioritize sustainable business practices in our operations is critical to our success over the next 74 years and beyond.

Sanderson Farms’ 2019 Corporate Responsibility Report can be accessed here.2     

The author thanks Jimmy Walker, Sanderson Farms’ food safety compliance manager; Stephanie Shoemaker, Sanderson Farms’ manager of environmental services for regulatory and permitting; Pic Billingsley, director of development and engineering for Sanderson Farms; Mike Yawn, Sanderson Farms Collins processing environmental supervisor; and Joe F. Sanderson Jr., CEO and chairman of the board, Sanderson Farms, for their contributions.