McDonald's completes sustainable-beef pilot project

Corporations want to tell their customers that their businesses, including their supply chains, are verifiably sustainable. McDonald's, for example, announced in 2014 its commitment to begin sourcing at least some of its beef from verifiable sustainable production chains by 2016. The company did not set specific numeric or percentage goals for sustainable supplies at the time, largely because "sustainable" production was not well defined, as were any measurable indicators of environmental, economic and social sustainability across beef-production sectors.

Much has changed over the past two years, with the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (GRSB), of which McDonald's is a founding member, working to develop a framework for measuring and monitoring sustainability at each production stage and in different environments.

As part of those efforts, the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (CRSB), launched its own "National Beef Sustainability Assessment and Strategy" project, which it recently completed. Within that project, McDonald's partnered with the CRSB to conduct a "Sustainable Beef Pilot Project" in Canada.

In developing the pilot project, McDonald's solicited input from a range of stakeholder groups across Canada to develop specific indicators of sustainability and a scoring methodology for cattle in the program. Eventually the group identified 31 indicators for the cow-calf stage, with 14 considered critical, 29 indicators for fed cattle with 11 critical and 28 indicators for processing plants with 9 critical. The group developed a one-to-five performance scale, and used independent third-party auditors to assign each participating operation with a performance score for each indicator.

The pilot project was completed in June 2016. The CRSB reports that between January 2014 and April 2016, the group conducted 183 on-site verifications on 178 beef operations, two packers, one beef-patty plant and two dairy arms.

Initially, the program involved over 4 million head of cattle, but most fell out due to gaps in verification between the cow-calf and packer stages. Ultimately, the program verified 8,967 cattle from 121 cow-calf producers and backgrounders, 20 feedlots and two packers. McDonald's was able to source just over 300,000 pounds of beef trim from verifiably sustainable beef sources during the pilot. Company representatives say they believe they can scale the program up relatively quickly to build a significant supply chain for sustainable beef in Canada.

McDonald's plans to maintain verified status for the participating producers, who can now use self-generated "desk verifications" to document their practices. Those verified producers also are grandfathered into the CRSB verification framework, which the group will beta-test over the next year.

While this pilot test was small, it serves as an example of where companies are headed in their efforts to demonstrate sustainability to their customers and shareholders. Like the GRSN and the CRSB, the U.S. Roundtable for Sustainable Beef is in the process of developing sustainability indicators and guidelines with input from multiple stakeholder groups. NCBA and other producer organizations are involved in the process, and producers need to make their voices heard, as some form of sustainability verification could become a cost of doing business in the future.