Alternative proteins, sustainability and traceability were three of the burning issues Tom Hayes, CEO of the nation’s largest food company, Tyson Foods, addressed while speaking to the general assembly of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, American National Cattlewomen’s and the Cattlemen’s Beef Board during their annual summer conference in Denver.
He described the company’s beef business as increasingly driven by premium offerings, with booming demand for certified natural programs, and talked about entering into the meal kit direct-delivery model with Tyson Taste Makers, a new but growing initiative operated out of the company’s plant at Emporia, Kan.
Hayes was the featured keynote during a general session attended by around 600 cattle industry leaders from around the country. He spoke for 40 minutes in a conversation with Cattlemen to Cattlemen host Kevin Ochsner that was recorded and distributed by farm broadcasters who attended the meeting.
Along with the other major beef packers, Tyson has invested in developing non-meat alternatives like veggie burgers and lab cultured protein, a move that has created unease within the cattle industry.
Hayes seemed to suggest that by getting involved early on the company hoped to play a role in how future products would be rolled out to the public, while acquiring knowledge that could be used to improve its beef business.
While he said he didn’t think alternatives should be referred to as “clean” meat — a term that implies traditional meat production isn’t — and endorsed NCBA’s stance that USDA’s Meat Inspection Service should have jurisdiction over its production, he also said his company was learning from being involved.
“We don’t think of it as either-or, we think of it as yes-and,” he said of alternative proteins. “We believe they are going to be a part of the equation, and we don’t want to be on the outside looking in. At the same time, we are focused on the business we are in and wanting to make it better everyday.”
As evidence, he highlighted $400 million the company has invested in its beef plants, mostly in material handling, case ready operations and improved workplace safety.
“We are the largest U.S. food company by sales, and the biggest part of our business is beef. So it is very important to Tyson Foods and something we are continuing to invest in,” he said.
He also addressed sustainability, another issue that has been contentious with cattlemen.
He applauded his audience for “doing more with less” and having “a mindset of continuous improvement,” but added that all aspects of the supply chain needed to work together to continually do better.
“We’ve made a huge commitment to reduce GHG (greenhouse gases) by 30 percent by 2030,” he said. “It takes 2 million acres of corn to feed our entire poultry business. By 2020, we will have a system in place to make sure that is being done sustainably through a stewardship project. We want consumers to think we are doing the right thing and being transparent in everything we do.”
He put in a plug for the sustainable beef roundtables that began forming eight years ago to create a framework for setting sustainability goals and measuring improvements.
“It’s not about solving something right away but making things better over time,” he said.
The Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef is preparing to hold its next conference in October in Ireland, a country Hayes has visited and credited with a strong government-funded focus on beef exports.
“Disparaging your competition is a poor way to manage it,” he said, again alluding to Ireland as an example of strong promotional support coupled with continual improvement.
On the question of what his company wants from cattle producers he said “communication,” and added that consumers want “transparency and traceability.”
“They want to know more about the people producing their meat and are they focused on doing the right thing? That’s what the consumer wants, and we’re interested in bringing that story to our customers,” he said.
He also touched on trade and immigration policy.
“Twelve percent of our total business is in international trade. We can’t be successful without it,” he said, adding that he sees current immigration policy as “a big threat.”
“Our business is built on immigrants, and we’re proud of that fact,” he said.
He touted the company’s Upward Academy as an example of employee education programs that help meat plant workers “move to the next level” in society.