McDonald’s this week announced it plans to begin purchasing “sustainable beef” by 2016. Eventually the company hopes to purchase beef exclusively from certified sustainable sources, but they acknowledge it could take time, first to define just what sustainability means in different environments and production systems, then to develop verifiable supply chains.

A McDonald’s web page outlines the company’s plan for sustainable beef, which includes:

  • Create principles and criteria for sustainable beef production
  • Identify and test sustainable beef production practices
  • Lead with transparency and engagement
  • Work closely with our suppliers and other partners for change in the industry

Fortunately, McDonald’s has been receiving input from a variety of stakeholder groups as they work to define and promote sustainable beef production. The company is one of the founding members of the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (GRSB), which includes membership from conservation groups, producer associations including the NCBA, retailers and companies providing products and services to the global beef industry. In addition to McDonald’s, founding members include Cargill, Elanco, JBS, Merck Animal Health, Walmart and the World Wildlife Fund.

In November 2010, the roundtable organized a Global Conference on Sustainable Beef, which drew about 300 participants including producers, packers, retailers, restaurateurs, environmentalists, scientists and others. At that time, the coalition had no formal organizational structure, but the group announced in 2012 it has adopted statutes and bylaws that will guide its work, and formalized the organization’s commitment to a global beef supply chain. The group emphasizes the “triple-bottom-line” approach to sustainability, meaning the production chain must be environmentally sound, socially responsible and economically viable.

During the 2010 conference, much of the discussion centered on defining sustainability and identifying sustainable or non-sustainable practices in beef production. There seemed to be general agreement that use of technologies that improve production efficiency can contribute to sustainability. Participants also seemed to agree that while beef production can be sustainable, there is no “one size fits all” solution. Meeting the triple bottom line of sustainability will require different production systems depending on various cultures and environments, and that producers around the world have opportunities to improve efficiency and intensify beef production toward higher profits and greater sustainability.

In response to the announcement, sustainability consultant and GRSB member Jude Capper, PhD, the following to Facebook: “Given their multinational reach, the definition will almost certainly be different for beef sourced from or sold in, for example, the USA vs. Brazil or Australia. How will they account for that and yet still make the definition both understandable to the consumer and specific to that region? As a point of note, GRSB is not proposing a global standard or verification scheme given the wide variety of regional beef systems.”

McDonald’s acknowledge the complexity of the issue in its statements on sustainability.  “While the road to sustainable beef is complex, we believe it is possible to achieve success. There are many best practices for beef sustainability, and we see momentum building to achieve our goal of purchasing sustainable beef.” The company statement goes on to say, “Each part of the beef industry is owned by a different entity and operates independently, with practices unique to its role in the supply chain. For instance, McDonald's beef suppliers, abattoirs, and patty processors do not own farms. They use a variety of different approved practices. And, diverse types of cattle make up the world's beef supply.”

So, stay tuned. While nothing will change quickly, it could be that in a few years you will need to meet some defined standards for sustainability for your cattle to qualify for the McDonald’s supply chain.