McDonald’s: Future Home of the Sustainable Big Mac?

The leading fast-food corporation is working to change the way its beef is raised.

(Photo: pointnshoot/Flickr; design: Lauren Wade)

Jan 7, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

It may have been announced a week later than your own groggy, hungover declaration to stop eating sugar or to work out more often, but McDonald’s is resolving to make major changes to its beef supply chain. The fast-food corporation says it has an “aspirational goal” to purchase 100 percent of its beef from “verified sustainable sources” in 2016.

Considering that more than 400,000 ranches raise the cattle that are fattened, slaughtered, butchered, and processed into the beef patties McDonald’s purchases (from a far smaller number of wholesale food suppliers), the squishy, two-year terms of this corporate resolution are understandable. And there’s an appropriately diverse group of shareholders and stakeholders and NGOs—namely the World Wildlife Fund—that McDonald’s is talking with about undertaking the changes to the supply chain to make that aspirational goal possible.

Problem is, none of them knows what verified sustainable beef is. Or, rather, what they want it to be.

Green Biz reporter Joel Makower, who broke the story this morning with the first of a three-part series on sustainable beef, spoke with Bob Langert, McDonald’s vice president of global sustainability. He says defining the terminology will be the task of others.

“Sustainable beef is not going to be defined by McDonald’s,” Langert says. “The key here is to get sustainable beef defined by a wide stakeholder group and coalition. We needed a bigger critical mass.”

That’s where the Global Conference on Sustainable Beef, a group comprising such major corporate players as Walmart and Cargill and the likes of WWF too, comes into play. Members received a draft version of a document titled “Principles and Criteria for Sustainable Beef” at the end of last year, Makower reports.

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).

The conference plans to hold a public comment period on the principles starting on March 1.

This isn’t the first time McDonald’s has made a grand move toward third-party-approved sustainability within its supply chain. Last year the corporation vowed to only serve fish that’s certified sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council at its U.S. outlets, and its coffee is similarly Rainforest Alliance certified.

But neither a cup of McCafe coffee nor a Filet-O-Fish sandwich is nearly as central to the company’s brand and business model as its burgers. That’s reflected in McDonald’s overall environmental impact, according to the company’s website about “Our Journey to Verified Sustainable Beef.”

“We found that about 70 percent of our greenhouse gas emission impacts are in our supply chain, and of those, around 40 percent are related to beef,” the site reads.

Regardless of whatever flawed definition of sustainable beef McDonald’s and its partners land on—and it’s guaranteed to be less than perfect, judging by the criticisms that hound other sustainability certification programs—cutting those emissions can only be a good thing.