As one of the world’s largest buyers of beef—the most climate-damaging food on the planet—McDonald’s is working to reduce emissions by supporting regenerative agriculture. But it’s also launching a new “McPlant” plant-based burger, something that could also make a difference if it can scale up.
The company announced today that it was launching the McPlant after successful tests of a plant-based burger made with Beyond Meat in Canadian restaurants last year. Some global markets will begin to test the new burger next year. At an investor meeting today, Ian Borden, the company’s international president, said that the McPlant is “crafted exclusively for McDonald’s, by McDonald’s,” but the company often works with outside suppliers but has not announced what supplier it will use. Beyond Meat—whose stock sunk when the news was announced—tells Fast Company that “Beyond Meat and McDonalds co-created the plant-based patty which will be available as part of their McPlant platform,” but did not confirm whether they were working together going forward. Impossible, which is used in Burger King’s plant-based Whopper, declined to comment. McDonald’s didn’t respond to an interview request in time for this story.
“This represents a significant milestone,” says Zak Weston, foodservice and supply chain manager at the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit that focuses on the plant-based food industry and “cultivated” meat and dairy products made from cells rather than livestock. “McDonald’s brand is iconic and global, and the scale at which they operate is unsurpassed.” Still, he says, it’s not a surprising move.
“We know that they’ve been paying attention to this category for a long time,” Weston says. The company launched the plant-based Big Vegan TS burger in Germany in May 2019, and started testing the “P.L.T”—a plant, lettuce, and tomato sandwich with a patty made by Beyond Meat—in Canada later in the year. Competitors already have plant-based burgers in the market, including Burger King, which tested the Impossible Whopper in April 2019 and rolled it out nationwide in August.
McDonald’s moves more deliberately. “In the U.S. specifically, I think, they’re often known as a fast follower . . . They obviously are an incredibly innovative company and has been for decades, but they really pay attention to what’s happening,” says Weston. “When they see that a trend is moving, they’re fairly quick to jump on it. But they don’t just do things overnight. When McDonald’s does something, they do it at a massive scale, so they really need an assured supply chain. If they’re going to build up a supply chain for something, they really need to ensure that there is long-term demand for that item or for that category.”
The launch is more evidence of the strong growth of plant-based meat. “It’s not really a surprise that every major restaurant chain is thinking about this,” says Weston. “I would wager that pretty much every restaurant brand in the country, and most of them globally, have had a conversation at some point and started to set their plant-based strategy, whether you’re going to be Arby’s and say our strategy is ‘we’re definitely not going to do it,’ but they talked about it, or your strategy is McDonald’s, or Burger King, or Dunkin, or all these other chains that are launching it. It’s something that their consumers are asking about, and their competitors are doing. And so they really have to do it.”