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The Perfect Storm: Extreme Pressures Facing the Meat Industry and How Sustainability Can Help

January 26, 2023 | Insights, News,

Authored by Cher Mereweather, Agri-food Sector Lead at Anthesis


The Meat Industry’s Most Pressing Challenges 

The meat industry has been facing increasing challenges over the last several years. The industry has seen a vacancy rate of 20%, 16.2% higher than the vacancy rate of the food and beverage industry as a whole. Inflation in Canada topped out at whopping 8% in June of 2022, the highest it’s been in 30 years. There continues to be supply chain disruptions from the pandemic. The war on Ukraine has caused geo-political impacts on feed, fertilizer, grain, and energy. And climate impacts, including extreme weather events like heatwaves, droughts, and floods, continue to test the industry’s resiliency. 

These unprecedented impacts on the meat industry are some of the worst I have seen in my professional career to date. In a world where meat is often criticized and seen as one of the larger contributors to climate change, it is one of the most exposed and vulnerable to its impacts, especially in terms of public trust. What’s worse is this will only get more critical as climate change accelerates. Ontario Meat and Poultry (MPO) companies are facing a perfect storm of challenges, and when they are under such extreme pressures, adapting their business for the future seems almost impossible. 


Case Study: Ontario Meat & Poultry (MPO) 

Companies in the food and beverage industry might initially be turned off by my, and others’, proposals to adapt their business for the future when they’re under such extreme pressures today. I get it. What they may not realize, however, is these adaptations can increase a business’s appeal to investors (bankers and insurance), reduce overhead costs, and increase employee retention. Anthesis partnered with MPO to help them do exactly that: adapt their business for the future. 

To support these companies, the program provided four of MPO’s medium-sized members with the opportunity to complete a rigorous 18-month program and seventeen of MPO’s micro to small-sized members with the opportunity to complete an in-depth 12-week “bootcamp”. The Meat and Poultry Ontario R-Purpose – Resiliency Through Purpose Program, funded in part through the Canadian Agricultural Partnership, addressed the need to bring sustainability, purpose, and circularity into the meat and poultry industry. 

We took our Anthesis suite of services and applied them in a program format to best address the needs of the meat industry. This included purpose development, materiality assessments, benchmarking, and purpose-driven circular business strategy development, including ESG strategies. Each company followed our activator journey from analytics, to solution, to implementation, to drive performance through environmental efficiencies and good governance. 

At the end of the program, companies reported achieving higher employee enrollment and engagement, food loss and waste reduction in their operations, identification of baselines on key environmental drivers that they never had in place before, refined business strategies through the lens of purpose and circularity, and engaged customers through strategic communications.   


All companies that participated in the program utilized a digital KPI Dashboard tool that tracked their baseline performance in several areas – including GHG emissions, energy consumption, water usage, waste reduction, productivity, operation efficiency, employee engagement, food safety non-conformances, sustainable procurement, and percentage circularity, among others. The companies in the program worked to embed innovative and leading-edge best practices and processes into their businesses to address employee retention, public trust, climate risk, and sustainable growth. 

One of the most pertinent outcomes of the program was the adoption of a purpose-driven circular mindset up and down these organizations. Some of these companies already thought of themselves as values-driven, but after this work they are looking at their businesses differently. They are asking themselves questions like, “What if this waste could be repurposed into something of higher value?” and “What would the efficiency gains in the organization be if we moved our culture to one that is regenerative?” The employee empowerment through adopting this mindset has also been surprising, but the most scalable in benefit. It is the people in these organizations that are in the facilitates every day, watching the operations and how the business runs, that are going to be able to see the continued opportunities for circularity and bring them to the forefront. 

Why Sustainability Isn’t Being Adopted in the Meat Industry  

Through implementing this program with MPO, we were able to understand why sustainability isn’t gaining traction in the meat industry. Ultimately, many companies are still under the impression that sustainability is a cost-center – they fear that implementing these opportunities will include large overhead costs. Additionally, many in the industry are still struggling with labour shortages. They are only able to focus on what is directly in front of them – hiring employees, managing expenses, increasing sales, etc. – and believe sustainability is not a current priority. And lastly, for many it is still seen as too complex. Sustainability language is not part of their everyday vernacular. If you were to ask a room of meat company owners what ESG means, you might get quite a few blank stares. It’s not until you start talking about it in terms of ways to save money on energy or reduce food waste that the term “sustainability” starts to connect. 

The reality, however, is that if the meat industry started adopting sustainability in its everyday business practices, companies would start saving money in areas such as energy and production, hiring costs, marketing, and a multitude of other categories. Sustainability shouldn’t feel inaccessible, and by putting these efforts into terms that make sense for these companies, more will want to embrace it. We saw this firsthand through our program with MPO. 

Now What? 

It’s no secret that climate change is a real and pressing issue, and many climate activists point their fingers at the meat industry as contributing to enormous amounts of greenhouse gas emissions each year. However, according to a recent IPCC report, we cannot meet our climate future without livestock and the meat industry. The various IPCC pathways to reach 1.5°C incorporate some level of livestock production and consumption. In other words, there is no climate scenario identified or studied that eliminates livestock production from the global agricultural industry. As discussed above, we were able to glean a multitude of interesting findings from our program with MPO. However, the work is far from over. We’re calling on researchers and academics to further our research, to dig deeper, and to help meat and poultry companies validate their data as the IPCC report has. As climate change continues to accelerate and more fingers start pointing towards the meat industry as the leading culprit, we need your help to solve their challenges through sustainability and support them in weathering this storm.  

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