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McDonald's: Want Sustainable Fries With That Shake?

Most people who buy a Big Mac aren't concerned about where it came from—or whether the accompanying fries are made using sustainable palm oil. But apparently, McDonald's cares. The company recently announced its Sustainable Land Management Commitment, a pledge to work with suppliers that ensure agricultural raw materials and packaging come from sustainable sources. First up: beef, poultry, coffee, palm oil, and packaging.

McDonald's started looking at its supply chain impact in 2009. As part of a partnership with the World Wildlife Fund, the fast food chain invited in the nonprofit for an unfettered look at what McDonald's buys, how much it purchases, and who it buys from. The WWF performed a detailed analysis, and came up with the five categories listed above as a starting point. "This year is mostly about goals and targets," says Bob Langert, VP of Corporate Responsibility at McDonald's.

The top priority for McDonald's is cleaning up the beef supply chain. "Beef has its fair share of impacts on the world, and we have a role to play to reduce its impact. We have done a carbon footprint analysis, and beef rises to the top as the number one priority," says Langert. In concrete terms, that means keeping track of and reducing CO2 emissions from farms, as well as developing a program to trace and certify sustainable beef in the Amazon to make sure that no beef from deforested areas is used.

McDonald's next priority is the poultry supply chain, and more specifically, the impact of poultry feed on rainforest destruction. " The impacts of how animal feed like soya is grown and raised is almost equal to the impact of the animal itself," explains Langert. McDonald's has already committed to a moratorium on soya purchased from deforested areas in the Amazon. The company is still trying to figure out next steps.

Most of McDonald's goals are still being formulated—the most comprehensive goal this far is for palm oil (the company plans to use only certified sustainable palm oil by 2015). And foodies hoping for the chain to start using only local, grass-fed organic beef should look elsewhere. But whenever a gigantic corporation like McDonald's shifts its food policies in the right direction, attention must be paid.

"Some of these sustainability issues are pre-competitive," says Langert. "We see working with our competitors and others in the food industry as the ultimate way that we're going to get things done."

Follow Fast Company on Twitter. Ariel Schwartz can be reached by email.

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