Forty-five large investors collectively managing $1.2 trillion in assets are pressing some of the nation's largest meat producers to set policies for reducing water pollution in their feeding, slaughtering and processing operations.
The investors, who are members of sustainability non-profit advocate Ceres and the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, sent letters to Cargill Inc, JBS, Perdue Farms and Smithfield Foods.
In those letters, they asked the companies to assess the pollution impacts of their direct operations and supply chains to develop comprehensive plans for protecting waterways, safely storing and managing animal waste and minimizing fertilizer runoff from feed production.
"We believe that robust management of water quality challenges is a critical aspect of risk management in the meat industry, and one of increasing importance in the context of climate change and growing weather extremes," the investors wrote.
"Broad mismanagement of local water resources can lead to devastating regulatory, reputational, and litigation risks, weakening a company's ability to operate profitably," said Kristel Verhoef, active ownership specialist at ACTIAM, which has 56 billion euros under management.
The campaign lands a month after Hurricane Matthew flooded manure lagoons and left behind millions of drowned hog, chicken and turkey carcasses, raising water contamination risks in the U.S. southeast.
Ceres last year released a report ranking major food companies on water risk. Several meat companies, including Tyson Foods Inc and JBS, were identified among the worst performers.
"With climate change, business-as-usual management of the more than 300 million tons of manure produced annually by the U.S. livestock industry is no longer feasible," said Brooke Barton, senior program director of Ceres' Water and Food Programs.
Cargill in a statement said it is working with customers, competitors, suppliers and conservation groups to improve water stewardship across supply chains in North America and beyond.
"Water is critical to supporting the agricultural economy, and we are committed to advancing sustainable solutions," Cargill said.
Perdue said it strives to operate at or better-than compliance levels, and to move quickly to address issues.
"Environmental stewardship is part of our company values and a factor in our incentive programs," Perdue spokesman Joe Forsthoffer said.
JBS and Tyson officials were not immediately available for comment.
Smithfield, which the Ceres report ranked as No. 1 among meat producers for water management, said it uses "cutting-edge science to handle manure responsibility" as part of ongoing efforts to address water pollution risks across its operations.