With 7 billion people on the planet today, and a projected 9 billion by 2050, ensuring access to safe, healthy, sustainable food in sufficient quantities to feed the world’s population should be a chief concern for us all. Dwindling water resources, speculative investments in land and food commodities markets and climate change are additional factors that directly impact the food security of millions across the globe. ICCR members work on several fronts to advocate for a food system that is equitable, affordable, safe and, importantly, sustainable for future generations.
ICCR members also believe you can’t truly call food “sustainable” unless it is produced by people whose human rights are respected and protected. We call on corporations to implement labor standards grounded in the International Labor Organization's Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work throughout their supply chains. These Principles call for a prohibition on all forms of forced labor, and guarantee the right to form trade unions and bargain collectively, and receive overtime pay when employees work more than eight hours a day.
The Hands that Feed Us Hungry workers in the U.S. Food Supply Chain
It is a bitter irony that low wages for our nation’s food workers mean that many are unable to afford food for themselves or their families. But food insecurity is only one of many challenges facing food workers, as ICCR members learned at a recent educational session highlighting labor issues in the U.S. food supply chain.
According to a report by the Food Chain Workers Alliance, U.S. food production - including processing, distribution,
retail and service - collectively account for over $1.8 trillion dollars annually or 13% of total GDP. Moreover, the food system is the nation’s largest employer, accounting for roughly 20 million U.S. workers or one-sixth of the nation’s workforce. Despite the importance of the sector to the American economy, food workers are among the lowest paid, and overworked employees often work in unsafe environments and without access to health care.
ICCR members worked together with the speakers to identify key levers within the food supply chain to improve the lives of workers; to develop questions that investors can use to engage companies in different segments of the supply chain; and to map initiatives and networks to identify potential areas of collaboration. Jayaraman introduced her book Behind the Kitchen Door, which describes how “poor working conditions, discriminatory labor practices, exploitation, and unsanitary kitchens affect the meals that arrive at our restaurant tables.”
Another ICCR initiative includes encouraging companies in the food and beverage industry to produce and market more nutritious options to address the dual burdens of obesity and under-nutrition that are disproportionately impacting our nation’s children. Our work is supported by research indicating that companies with above-average sales of “better-for-you” products report larger sales increases over a five-year period and offer superior investment opportunities than their competitors.
In addition, ICCR members support safe and sustainable food by advocating for the responsible use of antibiotics in animal agriculture, and for monitoring the impact of genetically engineered (GE) foods; these two aspects of ICCR’s food work are covered below in further detail.
Genetically Engineered Food: Navigating Risks and Potential Benefits
Since their introduction, the value and impact of GE food crops have been mired in controversy. First authorized for field testing in the U.S. in 1986 and made commercially available in 1996, GE crops are both derided as “Frankenfoods” and lauded for their hunger-eliminating potential.
More than 60 percent of all processed foods available today—including many common snack foods—contain GE ingredients such as soy, corn, or canola; and because in the U.S. there is no mandate that GE food be labeled, most people have been unknowingly eating them for years. ICCR members contend that all GE foods should be labeled so that consumers have the opportunity to make more informed food choices.
To help companies achieve best practices around GE foods, ICCR recently developed a set of 5 key performance indicators (KPIs) to help gauge performance. Stressing consumers’ right to know what is in the foods they eat, the indicators cover topics such as developing and implementing a public policy on GE food safety, disclosure of lobbying expenditures to ensure monies aren’t used to fund anti-regulatory efforts and strategies for addressing the potential adverse impacts from GE food production/sales.
Antibiotic Overuse in Animal Agriculture
Since 2002, ICCR has worked with food companies to help them better manage the business and human health risks of antibiotic overuse. The overuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture has been linked to dangerous human antibiotic resistance, including such intractable infections as MRSA, and has become a key issue in food safety.
The FDA estimates that animal agriculture accounts for 80% of all U.S. antibiotic use, and most of this can be traced to concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) looking for low cost/high yield ways to hasten growth and reduce disease in livestock living in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. Most of the meat sold by companies in the U.S. comes from CAFOs yet, as a whole, the industry has failed to adequately disclose when and to what degree it is using these medicines.
Said KateWalsh of the Tri-State Coalition for Responsible Investment, “The public health risks of antibiotics overuse to plump up our nation’s meat supply should concern all stakeholders. As investors, we work with pharmaceutical and meat companies as well as industry regulators to control the use of these medicines in order to preserve their effectiveness in treating human illnesses.”
ICCR recently developed a set of key performance indicators and best practices around antibiotic use by the food industry. The indicators include: depth and scope of corporate reporting; existence of food safety policies; and an independent review and verification of the company’s social and environmental impacts.