Nestlé, Bunge, Danisco, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, and Tyson Foods are the first food processors to join a programme to develop global reporting standards on sustainability projects in the sector.
The four this month joined the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI). All have extensive sustainability programmes already underway, including projects on water and forest conservation, pollution controls and ethical sourcing.
Food processors are increasingly seeking to communicate the progress of such programmes, launched as a means of meeting hightened consumer awareness of issues general grouped under the 'sustainability' label.
However reporting standards vary widely making comparison difficult for consumers.
GRI was established to develop harmonised reporting rules for industry on such issues relating to economic, social and environmental performance.
The GRI said the four processors will be part of a sector working group that will develop a specific set of guidance to help the food companies report on their sustainability projects.
"This guidance will provide a tool to make sure that reports effectively cover the key issues for the sector and enhance the comparability of reports," the GRI stated.
Some other companies in the food processing sector are close to a final committment on joining, GRI said in announcing the participation of the four manufacturers.
The resulting sector supplement on food processing will be open to a public comment period and will complement the more general GRI-developed guidelines for sustainability reporting.
"This is based on the principle that good measurement supports good management and is a prerequisite for good communication," the GRI stated.
Dick Bond, president and chief executive of Tyson Food said consumers are increasingly interested in understanding how what they eat and drink is produced. The interest shows the need for a voluntary initiative from companies.
"We believe a comprehensive set of food sector indicators will provide for consistency and relevancy in the sustainability reporting process and increase our ability to provide in the areas of hunger relief, product quality, environmental protection, employee well-being and community support," he stated.
Michael Dupee, Green Mountain's vice president of corporate social responsibility, said sustainability reporting creates value for the company.
"It helps us to improve our programmes, provide relevant information to the investing and consuming public, and connect to the larger community," he stated.
Sustainability reporting is becoming the way many companies are reinforcing the trust of consumers and expanding their competitive advantage against other market players, said Bunge's corporate communication director Adalgiso Telles.
Bunge has operations in different stages of the food supply chain, from fields to consumers table, he added.
In Brazil the company works through a range of organisations to support sustainability projects.
The working group will eventually have 10 food processing companies and 10 sectoral "stakeholders" as member.
GRI plans to form a complete group by early December 2007 and is currently recruiting food processing companies from emerging markets to join as working group partners.
The GRI is now seeking other members representing consumers, trade unions and investment firms.
The deadline to join the group is 30 November.