The other day I watched the movie Food, Inc., and besides making me reconsider the high meat-content in my diet, it inspired me to look at the CSR reports of some of the food industry’s so-called “bad guys.” I wanted to see what the companies themselves had to say on their website in response to the socially irresponsible practices mentioned in the movie. Here are a couple of things I found:

1a. According to the movie, one meat processor requires chickens to be raised in dark, windowless coups. One of the farmers interviewed that raises chickens for this company offered to show the inside of the coup, but after repeated visits from company representatives, decided the public didn’t need to see it.
1b. On the same company’s CSR report, they talk about the importance of animal well-being, and how they are furthering this ideal through “training for Team Members that handle and work with live animals; on-going process monitoring; and internal and third party audits and reviews.” Their report is not only vague, but also obviously flawed as it overlooks the real problems and challenges of the industry, including the fact that chickens should not spend their entire life in a dark, crowded cages.

2a. Another company is discussed for their irresponsible practice of patenting seeds. Here several farmers complain how the threat of patent infringement make it impossible for them to save their seeds (something unheard of in one of the oldest occupations in the world – farming), forcing them to purchase and depend on private companies for new seeds, increasing their financial hardship.
2b. In this company’s CSR report, they defend their use of patents by arguing that the patents protect the farmers by creating an equal playing field. They don’t mention that it provides another revenue source.

So who’s right? I don’t know how chickens should be raised, only that I like to eat them. And I haven’t talked to enough farmers to know whether the seed patent actually hurts or helps them. What I do know is that, as a consumer, I am the true force of change, voting with my dollar for companies whose products and practices I approve of. But being able to “vote” well requires being well informed, and being well informed requires transparency. In order to use sustainability reporting in a more constructive way, it is essential that the food industry powerhouses open their doors to the public, address their challenges openly and honestly, and commit to telling the consumer exactly what they’re eating. Not only could this lead to improved health of the nation, but also a competitive advantage at the grocery store.

—Kate