Building a Sustainable Food Supply Chain

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Sustainable ingredients come from sustainable suppliers. Here’s how to identify the brands and products you want to work with.

Sustainability has gone from buzzword to buying strategy, with consumers around the world searching for food and beverage products with on-package claims related to sustainable ingredients. But, although callouts such as “organic” and “natural” will capture the attention of a share of the market, as the scope of sustainability grows, savvy consumers are also looking for indications of ethical farming and production practices.

To help your brand build toward a more sustainable food supply chain, we asked for guidance from three of Kerry's top sustainability advocates, each of whom works in a different area of the business.

Our experts:

  • Michel Aubanel, Flavour Ingredients Global Development Manager
  • Maarten Butselaar, Group Responsible Sourcing Manager
  • Christina O’Keefe, Sustainability and Assurance Systems Manager

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KerryDigest: You each work in different roles along the food supply chain. How is sustainability woven into what you do?

Michel Aubanel: I spend time at the workbench and in the field, searching for the best flavours nature has to offer. Working with local farmers—from the Amazon to Africa—allows us to emphasise the importance of mother nature in our products. When we create flavours, we rely on natural extracts in recipes as much as possible. This was the avenue we took 30 years ago when we closed our organic chemistry research laboratory and developed a lab focused on natural extracts.

Maarten Butselaar: I’ve worked since the late '90s in global procurement roles, and have been at Kerry since 2001. Around four years ago I moved from a purchasing role to a responsible sourcing role. Now I look after all of our raw material categories globally and assess them for sustainability, both in terms of analysing our own supply chain, from our vendors down to the fields our raw materials originate, and setting up smallholder projects for select categories where we can add value to farmer communities.

Christina O’Keefe: I work directly with Kerry’s manufacturing facilities on improving their environmental performance. Utilising the structure outlined in the ISO 14001 Environmental Management System Standard, the facilities work continuously to improve on their carbon emissions, water usage and waste reduction. This allows us to utilise the sustainable raw materials we procure to create sustainable and safe solutions that meet customers' needs and reduce the overall environmental footprint.

KerryDigest: How can Kerry and other manufacturers ensure the raw materials and products they use do not contribute to environmental or social problems?

Maarten: We prioritise our actions for the categories where the need for change is highest. For instance, when Kerry buys raw materials from a country with a history of deforestation, animal abuse or human rights abuses, we require our vendors be part of the Supplier Ethical Data Exchange (Sedex) to ensure that, in addition to our own audit protocols, these vendors are assessed regularly through a third party. Because Kerry buys the majority of its raw material portfolio from processors who in turn buy the crops from farmer co-ops, we need to have a good and transparent dialogue with our direct vendors. We actively participate in multi stakeholder initiatives like the Sustainable Agriculture Initiative (SAI) Platform, where our customers, our competitors and NGOs all come together in a pre-competitive environment to discuss continued sustainable improvements that can be made across the whole value chain.

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Christina: All Kerry manufacturing locations are members of Sedex and we’re also a member of the Carbon Disclosure Project, which provides an avenue to measure, manage and share environmental data. Memberships and certifications such as the Food Safety Certification and ISO 14001 Certification ensure a supplier has processes in place to control their operations and to continuously improve. When you're looking for a partner, consider companies that have publicly outlined their sustainability goals—especially ones that align with the UN Sustainable Development Goals—and that share information on their social compliance and environmental performance.

KerryDigest: What other steps might a company take to make working with a raw material more sustainable?

Michel: There a number of things manufacturers can do across all functions. In the lab, we’ve come up with new processes using more water-based cold tincture before further extraction, therefore avoiding the use of “serious” solvents. We’ve learned how to better understand and use the flowers, roots and leaves of plants from the local people who grow them. Kerry was the first milk processor to get all of its Irish milk suppliers certified under the Sustainable Dairy Assurance Scheme. And we are always looking for ways to reduce waste during production. For example, the cocoa plant left after extraction is not wasted but used for further valorisation.

KerryDigest: What might make a company decide that an ingredient is not actually “sustainable”?

Maarten: Each raw material has different “hotspots” from a sustainability perspective. Dairy, for instance, is in the news as an important contributor to greenhouse gas emissions at a farm level. But does that mean that dairy is not sustainable? No, not at all. What it does mean is that we need to improve the way we produce milk so that environmental damage is minimised. Any efforts need to also take into account social consequences, because the livelihood of many smallholder farms is dependent on selling this milk.

Michel: In some cases, there is simply not enough of an ingredient to fulfil demand. For example, in line with the Nagoya protocol, we recently designed a blend of botanicals to avoid consuming too large a volume of a medicinal plant native to South America. The blend of botanicals is not at risk, and after careful extraction it mimicks the taste profile and sensation of the more vulnerable plant.

KerryDigest: The sustainable ingredient conversations often focuses on plant products and ingredients—what are some examples of sustainable production applied to animal products?

Maarten: As demand for sustainable production increases, the industry has to adapt to it in order not to lose business. For animal derived ingredients there are three “hotspots”: greenhouse gases, animal welfare and animal feed, which is getting more and more attention since much of it contains soya derivatives, and the production of soy beans in the Brazilian Amazon is linked to the disappearance of the rainforest. There are a number of ongoing industry-wide initiatives to assure these three elements are sufficiently examined and risks in the supply chains are mitigated.

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Christina: A circular economy aids in the production of sustainable animal products. In manufacturing, we focus on our waste streams by prioritising reuse, recycling and repurposing. For example, when non-animal derived product waste is safe for consumption it can be repurposed as animal feed. This diverts waste from the landfill and brings it back into the economy, creating a sustainable solution.

KerryDigest: How can suppliers improve the welfare of people along its supply chain?

Maarten: Because of supply chain complexity, Kerry is often far away from the farmers that contribute to our global raw material portfolio. To be better connected, we look at the needs of indigenous smallholders for selective categories within our supply chain and set up programs geared to solve the issues most important to them. A typical example would be Kerry’s rel="noopener noreferrer" project ILHAM for palm oil in Malaysia. We work with nearly 500 farmers in 4 villages in partnership with specialists from other companies, making the case for better ag practices that will lead to higher yields and income for the farmers. In our Tsara Kalitao project for vanilla in Madagascar, we have worked since 2015 with farmers to improve livelihood, women’s empowerment and education for children up to 12 years of age.

Visit the sustainability section of our website to learn more about this important aspect of our business. To discuss ways we can help you develop sustainable products, contact us.

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