Cargill and Corporate Social Responsibility — Rhetoric vs. Reality

Cargill has also endured food recalls, environmental lawsuits and deforestation claims despite claiming that "corporate responsibility is part of everything we do."

On one of the links on the "Corporate Responsibility" section of its website, Cargill asks a question: "What is our impact on society and the environment?" And then it gives an answer: "Corporate responsibility is part of everything we do. It is a company-wide commitment to apply our global knowledge and experience to help meet complex economic, environmental and social challenges wherever we do business. Four commitments anchor the hundreds of programs and initiatives we have under way at any given time."


The Rhetoric:
"We work with customers and partners to develop science-based solutions to promote food, feed and product safety to the same high standards globally." The company says it upholds "science-based standards," "good hygiene protocols," and "a systematic, preventive approach to food safety."

The Reality:
Since 2000, Cargill has recalled more than 20 million pounds of beef tainted with E. coli bacteria and poultry products containing Listeria bacteria, according to a 2009 report by the nonprofit group Food & Water Watch. The tainted meat was linked to food-borne illness outbreaks, miscarriages and several deaths, the group says. U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors cited Cargill in 2008 for excessive use of electric prods to stun cows at its Fresno meatpacking plant. USDA's problem with the probes? Unconscious "downer cows" can pick up E.coli and Salmonella bacteria as they are dragged to slaughter across feces-laden floors. The year before, a Cargill subsidiary was forced to recall hamburger patties sold to Sam's Club and other retail outlets after dozens of people became ill with E. coli O157:H7. Among them was Stephanie Smith, a 22-year-old dance instructor in Minnesota, who suffered kidney damage, spent three months in a medically induced coma and remains in a wheelchair. Her story was the centerpiece for a New York Times series that won a Pulitzer Prize.

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The Rhetoric:
"We help to raise rural incomes and living standards, improving local agriculture and making investments that strengthen local economies."

The Reality:
In South American breadbasket countries — Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay — activists have denounced Cargill and other commodities traders for providing financial backing for the rapid expansion of large-scale soybean plantations that, the activists say, are causing myriad environmental and social problems, and are uprooting entire rural communities and ways of life.


The Rhetoric:
"We minimize our environmental impact, pioneer new businesses using renewable raw materials and help customers reduce their impact on the environment."

The Reality:
In 2005, the Oklahoma Attorney General's office filed suit in federal court against Cargill and 10 other companies that promote the use of "chicken litter" on area farms as a crop fertilizer. The poultry waste is heavily laden with phosphorous. Cargill and the other companies maintain that the litter does not pose a "substantial threat" to nearby waterways and have fought state regulators' attempts to limit the amount used as farm fertilizer. Final arguments were heard in February 2010, and a decision is pending. (The Environmental Protection Agency is considering new federal regulations on phosphorous that may pre-empt the ruling.) In 2002, Cargill Pork Inc. pleaded guilty to a criminal charge of violating the Clean Water Act and paid a $1.6 million fine for illegally dumping feces and other waste from its 17,000-pig factory farm in Martinsburg, Mo. The hog waste ended up in the Loutre River, a tributary of the Missouri, killing an estimated 53,000 fish. In 2005, the company settled allegations of Clean Air Act violations at 27 seed processing operations in 13 states and promised to make upgrades that would cut emissions of carbon monoxide by 10,900 tons per year, the equivalent of taking more than a million cars off the roads. It also paid more than $5 million in fines and other restitution.


The Rhetoric:
"We partner with industry, governments, nongovernmental organizations and local communities to help identify and encourage responsible and sustainable practices." In the Brazilian Amazon's Santarém region, Cargill has funded The Nature Conservancy to help its soybean growers establish preserves on a portion of its converted rain forest holdings, as required by Brazilian law. "Training farmers in reforestation techniques is resulting in areas of farmland being restored and protected, while helping our local suppliers fulfill their legal obligations" to comply with the Brazilian forest code, Cargill says on its website.

The Reality:
Cargill does not mention the uproar and legal challenges regarding its move into Santarém. International and Brazilian environmental groups condemned Cargill for building the Santarém processing and shipping hub, saying it provided an economic incentive to growers pushing the frontier of soy cultivation deeper into the Amazon rain forest. "The size and location of the plant show that Cargill is counting on increased deforestation in the Amazon to meet its huge export capacity," a 2006 Greenpeace study contends.

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