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January 21, 2014 at 12:47 pm

Could McDonald’s be a Leader in Sustainability?

Last week McDonald’s announced that it would be frying sustainable burgers by 2016. If you’re as critical of McDonald’s and other fast food suppliers as I am, the news probably sounded more like a publicity move than a sincere promise. Looking deeper into the issue, however, it seems possible that McDonald’s is, in fact, making reasonable efforts to define measures of sustainability in a way that could actually create industry-wide improvements.

(Credit: Rupert Ganzer)

(Credit: Rupert Ganzer)

Why beef? Well, for one of the largest companies in the world who is constantly under scrutiny for their poor environmental, health, and agricultural practices, beef is a good place to start. Beef accounts for 28 percent of their carbon footprint, which is nearly as much as the carbon footprint of all of their restaurants. In addition to the greenhouse gas emissions of raising, transporting and slaughtering cattle, the beef industry is also responsible for deforestation, and the pollution of air, water, and soil, to start. Beef is also something they sell well (it generates 5 billion dollars in sales per year), and want to sell more of.

McDonald’s first started considering sustainable routes to beef production at the Global Conference on Sustainable Beef held in Denver in 2010. There, McDonald’s joined a group of 350 producers, NGOs, environmentalists, and ranchers. Other key players included Jason Clay of the WWF, as well as Cargill, and Walmart. Their goal was to define what it means to be sustainable across all hands of the meat industry, worldwide. It was out of that bold first meeting, that the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef was formed.

The group is powerful in its diversity of players, who represent all stages of beef production, from field to feedlot to restaurant booth. Since 2010, the GRSB has hosted opportunities for ranchers and slaughterhouses and fast food companies to teleconference and sit side by side in workshops to share their sustainability efforts and concerns.

Ranchers, for example, want to improve their approaches to natural resources, land management.  They also want to decrease methane emissions, and improve the methods of growing crops that they feed cows on their last 70-90 days on the ranch. For feedlot managers, key concerns include water pollution and air quality. Sustainability and food safety concerns grow more complex towards the final stages of the chain, with slaughterhouses mitigating food safety issues and waste concerns. At the end of the chain are McDonald’s and other grocers and retailers, who will be judged not only for the sustainability of their beef but also for the sustainability of their packaging and waste practices.

For a notoriously complex node of the food supply chain like the beef industry, it is impossibly difficult to come up with one solid definition of “sustainable”. For that reason, environmentalists and foodies are skeptical of McDonald’s commitment to sustainable beef. But the GRSB is making strides in creating as complex a definition of sustainability that might be required of them.

By March, they will release six principles of sustainability that can be upheld worldwide. The principles, as outlined by Makower in part one of his three part series, include people (human rights, work environments), community (culture, heritage, employment, land rights), animal health and welfare, food safety and quality, natural resources, and efficiency and innovation (reducing waste, optimizing production, economic vitality). They are working right now to define criteria for each principle with sensitivity to regional differences.

McDonald’s, as a company interested in selling sustainable beef patties, has to find a profitable way to ensure that all parts of its obscure production map are meeting the agreed-upon standards. If effectively implemented, there will be an industry-wide change in the ways that beef gets traced, processed, distributed, and sold.

Profitability is the priority for McDonald’s, and they will do what it takes to avoid noticeable price increases (despite public willingness to spend more on steroid-free, hormone-free, and antibiotic-free meat). Bob Langert, McDonald’s vice president, upholds that “sustainability should not be some sort of niche, premium, extra-cost endeavor that’s for a very narrow segment of society that has enough means and wealth to purchase sustainability.  The fact is, sustainability belongs in the masses.”

(Credit: Flickr)

(Credit: Flickr)

Given McDonald’s commitment to low prices, then, it’s not likely that their sustainability endeavors (or employee wage increases) will significantly increase their menu prices. Instead, they will  find ways to afford sustainability like they’ve afforded everything else they do: by influencing producers down the line. That means streamlining, and cutting down on production costs and transportation costs.

Between now and 2016, they’ll be researching ways to do just that. They’re already working with a few dozen European farms (called the Flagship Farm project) that already produce wheat, potatoes, lettuce, carrots, fruit, milk, eggs, beef, chicken, and pork for European McDonald’s restaurants, to highlight practices that are both sustainable and economical. The Tudor family farm, for example, reduces greenhouse gas emissions and food costs by raising healthier animals that take 212 fewer days to reach slaughter weight, averaging at animals that are 480 days old. They also capture rainwater, which reduces reliance on outside resources and helps collect rainwater that would otherwise saturate the finishing shed. This is still a far cry from the grass feed, organic small-scale rotational grazed farm, but very different from Cargill feedlots in the United States.

Although it’s unclear whether McDonald’s will impose this kind of matrix on all of its suppliers or if this is but one model of sustainability that they’re developing, it’s safe to say that the project reflects the kind of partnerships they’ll make and the kind of farm-to-table storytelling that will accompany the sustainable beef patties. But what will it take to get them there?

According to the GRSB goals, it would absolutely start with improved traceability. For McDonald’s, that means tracing every hand in the beef supply chain to someone who meets the GRSB standard. Tracing where cows are raised, where they end up, and how that happens, will require improvements in data capturing. GreenBiz reporter, Joel Makower, in a recent three-part piece on the issue, says that it’s unlikely that every beef ingredient in the patty will be traceable in the first place, and that “it could take a decade before a critical mass of certifiably sustainable beef is on the market.”

The GRSB will also require more communication between the top and middle links to empower everyone to pinpoint the improvements they can make, access the tools they need, and ultimately improve their livelihoods. These are the kind of efficiencies (however vague) that vice president Langert says will ultimately improve their business and cut down on economic and environmental costs.

The recipe for sustainable fast-food beef, then, might just be as complex as the recipe for a Big Mac.

-Aly Miller