Being responsible for championing the sustainability strategy of one of the largest meat processors in the world may appear to many an unenviable task. But Dennis Treacy, recently named senior vice president of corporate affairs and chief sustainability officer at Smithfield Foods, relishes the challenge and believes the company has a good story to tell. He spoke with Ben Cooper about his appointment, the company’s achievements to date and future goals.

In 1906, Upton Sinclair’s book, The Jungle, shocked the US with its depiction of labour and environmental conditions in the meatpacking industry. Last year, Food Inc., Robert Kenner’s no-holds-barred documentary on the US food industry, alleged that the industrial farming and processing of beef, pork and chicken is inhumane and unsustainable, and won an Oscar nomination in the process.

Only the most vehement of activists would suggest nothing much has changed in 100 years. But the symmetry between the two works serves to illustrate just how exposed the meat processing industry has always been and remains to negative publicity, consumer concern and opprobrium from campaigners. To describe it as a magnet for all three would not be an overstatement.

Taking on the role of chief sustainability officer at the world’s leading pork producer therefore is not a challenge for the fainthearted. In February, Dennis Treacy was promoted to the position of senior vice president of corporate affairs and chief sustainability officer at Smithfield Foods. The company described the move as part of its ‘long-term focus on corporate social responsibility and sustainability’.

Two months into his newly created role, Treacy encapsulates the challenge companies like Smithfield face in corporate social responsibility terms succinctly. “We’re easy to hate,” he concedes. But he does not allow this to pervade his work. Indeed, he is unremittingly positive about what Smithfield has already achieved and the challenges ahead and comes back often to the idea of continuous improvement and learning from mistakes.

Having joined the company originally on an environmental brief, over eight and a half years he has seen these activities expand to cover all areas of corporate social responsibility and sustainability. The strategy is divided into five broad areas: environment; food safety; animal welfare; employee engagement; and community investment.

From an organisational standpoint, the company has a board oversight committee to which Treacy reports, as well as a senior management sustainability committee, which he chairs and which comprises other senior executives. Under that, there are working groups addressing separate areas “where the ideas bubble up from”.  Treacy believes the structure represents a good combination of board scrutiny and hands-on engagement of employees.

Having previously been director of Virginia’s department of environmental quality and an attorney in the natural resources section of the Virginia attorney general’s office, he has interesting views on switching from the public to the private sector. Describing himself as “passionate” about the environment, he believes his motivations remain the same, and refutes the notion that he has “gone to the dark side”.

“I’m the kind of personality that needs to make things better, to continuously improve, so whether that’s in the public sector or the private sector that’s what motivates me personally. And I have found a willing company in Smithfield to accept that point of view.”

He acknowledges that the company’s record on CSR was “not as stellar in the past as it should have been” but observes that there has been a “sea change” at Smithfield regarding corporate responsibility.

Among the highlights he cites are the company’s adoption of ISO 14001 environmental certification, the development of a comprehensive animal welfare management system, and the company’s listing on the FTSE4Good Index. On food safety he says the company has put in place programmes he believes to be “the most stringent in the world”.

While the company has stressed Treacy’s role in ensuring it conforms to increasing government regulation, Treacy believes this is simply a baseline to work from. “CSR is about something different,” he says. “It’s about going beyond compliance, doing the right thing, behaving ethically, telling the truth.”

The ISO 14001 is a voluntary programme, he points out, as is the company’s animal welfare programme and its decision to phase out the use of gestation crates for its sows in the US. He concedes that work has slowed on this during the recession but renewed the company’s commitment to doing it.

He also points to voluntary environmental initiatives such as “extraordinary” water conservation and energy conservation programmes which “not only save emissions but are also saving the company quite a lot of money”.

The CSR strategy is a project to which CEO Larry Pope is personally committed, Treacy adds. As one of three senior vice presidents, Treacy says he speaks with Pope on a daily basis.

And that commitment, he suggests, is not confined to senior management. One of the abiding successes of the past few years, Treacy says, is the embedding of the company’s sustainability and corporate responsibility ethos in the workforce at large. “CSR is well engrained in the culture of the company from very top to bottom,” he says.

Nevertheless, the inconvenient truth for Smithfield is that it is a leader in a sector with more than its share of reputational pitfalls. As debate over environmental sustainability and climate change increases one would intuitively expect Smithfield’s exposure to those concerns to increase. In other words, Treacy’s job is not going to become any easier in the years ahead.

Once again, he is upbeat. Rather than enduring endless and increasing criticism regarding the sustainability of industrial meat processing, he believes that by continuing along the path it has set the company will be able to show that large-scale meat production can be sustainable. And he believes the key to this lies in technological innovation, particularly in the field of renewable energy.

“What I see in the future with our operations is a new awakening, a willingness to engage in innovation, a focus on renewable energy. Capturing methane from farms is what the future will look like. I think once you do that that you will begin to have products that make a lot of sense.” Moreover, he maintains that it is large-scale operations which offer the best potential for this. “I think the only way you are going to effectively be able to do that is on larger farms like we have. The power companies and those who would buy that energy need efficiency as well.”

He cites the state-of-the-art methane-capturing technology at its Tar Heel plant as an example of the company’s environmental innovation.

The fact that a century after The Hunger, Smithfield and others are still having to defend themselves from criticism suggests that to some degree it simply goes with the territory. But Treacy believes the company’s sustainability strategy can help dispel the idea that meat processing plants “are horrible places where horrible things happen”. He adds: “Our challenge is to make sure that we provide enough information to people so that they are comfortable that the products they are eating are raised in a sound manner, and the way you do that is by engaging your employees, having successful CSR programmes and communicating what you’re doing.”

However, whatever improvements are made, meat processors will perhaps never be the most cherished companies in our society. Even if we accept that they are a fact of life, and consume their products, we are never likely to find the idea of what they do palatable. Changing that may be beyond the reach of any corporate sustainability strategy, but there is much it can do and Treacy clearly feels Smithfield is showing how.