- Smithfield Foods was accused by consumer groups of making false and misleading claims about the sustainability of its pork products and the company’s environmental record in a complaint filed with the Federal Trade Commission.
- In the 47-page filing, Food & Water Watch, Pennsylvania Farmers Union and seven other groups detailed a list of examples in which the pork giant promoted its environmental and sustainability efforts to consumers who value these attributes. In reality, the filing states, "these representations are directly contradicted by Smithfield’s long history of environmental degradation, [and] continued reliance on unsustainable practices."
- In a statement provided to Food Dive, Keira Lombardo, Smithfield's chief administrative officer, said the filing "contains false allegations and is without merit" and that the company "remains focused on providing safe, affordable food while pursuing our ambitious sustainability goals from coast to coast."
Green groups and consumer organizations have been at loggerheads with meat and poultry companies over their environmental records for decades. In an effort to improve their image, producers have gone to great lengths to promote changes they have made to their businesses and practices they have put in place to curtail polution and help the environment. Smithfield is no exception.
In 2016, Smithfield announced an eight-year plan to slice a quarter of its carbon emissions, which the pork company hoped would both lower costs and burnish its brand. Some of the things Smithfield included in the plan were scaling back applications of fertilizer used to grow grain for pig feed and installing systems to extract natural gas from manure.
Smithfield's website also prominently displays some of its environmental efforts, including using wind and solar energy to reduce its carbon footprint. A major part of its environmental initiative is the company's partnership with Dominion Energy, spending $500 million to capture methane from Smithfield's company-owned and contract hog farms and converting it into renewable natural gas.
In the complaint filed Thursday, the parties took issue with Smithfield's use of anaerobic digesters — technology that converts organic waste into natural gas — as a "clean energy" innovation. The filing claims digesters encourage dangerous farm practices and allow Smithfield to monetize its "mismanagement rather than addressing the root causes of its greenhouse gas emissions and other pollution."
But the consumer groups' issues run deeper. They claim Smithfield is the third-largest water polluter in the country. In 2019 the company was issued at least 66 notices of violations of environmental protection laws, they say. Its Tar Heel, North Carolina plant has a long record of Clean Water Act violations, as well as serious air pollution violations, they claim.
The petitioners asked the FTC to require Smithfield to remove what they called misleading marketing claims, prevent it from making similar claims in the future, issue corrective statements in all media where those claims were distributed and impose other penalties it finds necessary.
Sustainabilty claims can be big business for food companies. A survey released last April by global management and consulting firm Kearney found the number of consumers who take the environment into consideration when making purchases has increased. In 2019, 71% considered the environment at least occasionally when making a purchase. This past April, after several weeks where most people stayed at home to deter coronavirus spread, 83% of consumers said they considered the environment when purchasing.
In a 1983 letter to Congress, the FTC provided guidance on what it defines as deceptive practices or tactics that are unlawful. The agency said all deceptive cases include a "representation, omission or practice that is likely to mislead the consumer." At the same time, it must be found that the consumer acted reasonably and the action by the company is deemed to be a "material" one.
Food & Water Watch and its partners outlined a long list of reasons why they believe Smithfield engaged in deception. Now it will be up to the FTC to weigh these claims and decide whether to act.