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Mass Brands Can Change the World: OSI's Chief Sustainability Officer Makes Passionate Case for Scale

September 10, 2020

Growing up on a small, goat dairy farm, Nicole Johnson-Hoffman developed a lasting appreciation for the hard work it takes to produce food. The experience also made Johnson-Hoffman, OSI's Chief Sustainability Officer, believe in the power of scale and the efficiency and opportunity that come along with it. "I like to say that we fed almost no one with all of our hard work at that farm," she recently said in a wide-ranging podcast interview.

It's a topic she frequently references to help explain how she arrived at her passionate views about the mass production of food and the crucial role big brands and companies can play in scaling positive change.

The personal journey she describes in the " what?" interview, has also played a role in shaping OSI's approach to sustainability, which focuses on using its global connections and position within the food processing and agricultural industries to drive widespread change.

For Johnson-Hoffman, that personal journey continued when she was given the opportunity to run a beef processing plant that employed hundreds of people and processed thousands of head of cattle a day. "[We were] not just making food for the world over, but employing all of those people and keeping a town prosperous...and also supporting farmers locally."


OSI's view of sustainability similarly encompasses the sustainability of farmer livelihoods and the communities in which we operate around the world. As Johnson-Hoffman suggested, large employers are in a position to make a significant, lasting impact. We at OSI don't take lightly the responsibilities that come with employing many thousands of people around the world. We also recognize the opportunity we have, as a large employer, to scale positive change. This recognition is built into our two social responsibility sustainability priorities: to create shared value for our company and the communities in which we operate; and to maintain safe workplaces where everyone's rights are protected and skills enhanced.

Johnson-Hoffman's experience in the beef industry has also given her strong insights into the reasons why some farmers have been reluctant to rapidly embrace the sorts of environmental or animal welfare practices that are gaining much more traction today. "Twenty years ago, we [in the meat industry] were incredibly confident in how we were producing food for the world...we didn't want to hear from anybody who wasn't an expert, scientist or shareholder...and that came from a place of pride. It is literal blood, sweat and tears that people put into producing food for the world and they are not delighted to have people question their commitment, their intelligence or their choices," she said. "But boy, is it different today."

Hoffman beamed about the attitude shifts she has witnessed and helped to cultivate herself through her work with groups like the U.S. Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, where everyone from farmers to academics to even activists can exchange views and ideas.

OSI wholeheartedly embraces multi-stakeholder groups as well because we see them as opportunities to learn and to advance best practices beyond our walls. "We are really trying to be a force for good in our supply chains, all the way back to our farms," Johnson-Hoffman said.


The close connections Johnson-Hoffman and so many others at OSI have forged with farmers around the world has also shaped the way we approach progress and change at the farm level. When we do learn about a new animal welfare or environmental practice that we strongly believe in and want our farmers to try, we ensure that that practice is grounded in data, because we are acutely aware of the risk involved in attempting something new.

"You've got to have data and science to back up recommendations to farmers around the world, and that is because they are not playing with the house's money," Johnson-Hoffman explained. "They are betting their own money, their livelihoods, their legacy for their children and their inheritance from their grandparents that we're right. We had better be right when we ask farmers to change something."


When large companies with suppliers around the world do implement positive changes across their supply chains, the impact is massive. To illustrate the point, Johnson-Hoffman reminded listeners that the meat sold today in grocery stores across the United States is processed according to higher standards than it was in the past, all because a single major global brand requested changes in beef factories 15 years ago. "When [a big brand] comes in and they say…'We've reconsidered how we feel about a certain production practice in animal agriculture, and we would like a change here,' entire production systems change," she said.

This idea guides our thinking at OSI, where we meticulously consider how supply chain decisions can be farmer-led and how change might impact our people and business, the environment, our communities and a range of other stakeholders. For example, OSI launched Cultivate, a farm-level quality assurance program for the Polish beef industry, in July 2019. Under OSI’s direction, approximately 6,000 farmers have since enrolled in Cultivate, using the standard’s audit to guide farm management practices holistically and drive progress toward shared sustainability goals.

“Only mass brands can change the world," Johnson-Hoffman said. "Niche brands can change certain products for certain people. But these mass brands are the ones who move the entire industry.”

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