McDonald’s Commits To Sustainable Beef, Doesn’t Yet Know How To Define Sustainable Beef

This could be good news for fast food fans and the planet, but don’t hold your breath.

McDonald’s Commits To Sustainable Beef, Doesn’t Yet Know How To Define Sustainable Beef
[Image: Cow via Shutterstock]

Want some guilt-free burger with your fries? McDonald’s probably isn’t the place it get it. But this week, the fast food giant announced that it’s aiming to buy verified sustainable beef by 2016. The only problem: The chain doesn’t yet know how it defines the term “sustainable beef.”

A year ago, McDonald’s announced it would serve sustainable fish. But does it matter?

When McDonald’s makes a change in its beef supply chain, it has ripple effects–28% of the company’s carbon footprint comes from beef, and each year McDonald’s sells $1 billion worth of each for its five beef-related brands, including the Big Mac and Quarter Pounder. The company has made small steps in the past, agreeing to ban beef sourced from the Amazon biome and adopting animal welfare standards developed by animal behavior expert Temple Grandin. But the recent beef news could–emphasis on could–be a big deal one day.

As McDonald’s explained to Joel Makower at Greenbiz, the company has no plans to create its own sustainable beef standard, instead relying on its existing collaboration–called the Global Roundtable on Sustainable Beef–with organizations including Walmart, JBS, Cargill, and the World Wildlife Fund:

The group developed six draft principles that the membership is considering, along with multiple criteria within each principle. The principles cover people (human rights, safe and healthy work environment), community (culture, heritage, employment, land rights, health), animal health and welfare, food safety and quality, natural resources (ecosystem health) and efficiency and innovation (reducing waste, optimizing production, economic vitality).

McDonald’s, which accounts for 1.5% to 2% of all beef consumption in the countries where it operates, according to Greenbiz, also isn’t yet sure how much sustainable beef it will buy in 2016, though it does have a goal of purchasing 100% sustainable beef at some unspecified point in the future.

But will all those young people that are fleeing fast food restaurants for feel-good “fast casual” chains like Chipotle come back to McDonald’s if they are promised sustainable beef? McDonald’s seems to think so–though it certainly knows that any sustainability claims from the company will be met with a healthy dose of skepticism. From Greenbiz:

McDonald’s has done private consumer research with the firm GlobeScan. “What comes through very strong is high expectations for companies like McDonald’s across the board in CSR and sustainability.”

At the top of the list, he says, are nutrition and obesity. Just below that is food sourcing, such as animal welfare and the use of antibiotics — likely more focused on health and ethics than on planetary concerns. Where the environment is mentioned, the top issue is waste management and recycling. “We think they’re going to vote with their feet more and more on this issue,” said [McDonald’s Vice President Of Global Sustainability, Bob] Langert.

This isn’t the first sustainability effort McDonald’s has made in recent years. Last January, the company announced that it is serving certified sustainable fish (there is actually certification for that). In 2011, the company committed to sourcing some of its food and materials from land areas that don’t damage natural resources or biological diversity.

This latest effort obviously is going to take awhile to really get going. By the time McDonald’s is able to scale up to 100% sustainably sourced beef, though, the world may have already moved on to lab-grown burgers.

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.