McDonald’s announces move towards sustainable beef

McDonald’s is aiming to ‘green’ its meat supply, but company still not clear on what ‘sustainable beef’ actually means

Source: Flickr/dave_mcmt

Source: Flickr/dave_mcmt

By Sophie Yeo

McDonald’s has pledged to buy verified sustainable beef starting in 2016, but one problem remains: they have yet to define what they mean by ‘sustainable’.

The fast food giant announced on their website that they aspire to source all of their beef from ‘verified sustainable sources’, beginning in two years’ time.

The company operates over 34,000 restaurants in 119 countries. It serves over 75 hamburgers every second, and its American customers alone are responsible for eating 5.5 million cows every year.

So a decision to serve sustainable beef could have a huge impact on the company’s carbon footprint. A report released by the UN in September said that livestock is responsible for 14.5% of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions.

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“This sounds simple, but it’s actually a big challenge because there hasn’t been a universal definition of sustainable beef,” the company has written on its website.

Unlike products such as coffee and fish, which have bodies certifying whether or not they classify as ‘sustainable’ according to strict criteria, beef has no such rules.

There are lots of elements that the new definition needs to encompass, including the environment and animal welfare. McDonald’s has said that its vision includes optimising the “cattle’s impact within ecosystems and nutrient cycles” as well as having a positive impact upon employees and communities.

Beef currently represents about 28% of the company’s carbon footprint. Cattle are widely recognised as one of the most carbon intensive food sources. Of all the emissions produced by all livestock globally, the greenhouse gas emissions produced by cows during digestion amounts to 39%.

In 2011, McDonald’s joined forced with a variety of stakeholders including environmental campaign group WWF to develop a set of principles for the beef industry. They have created the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, which has drafted a set of best practices, in what McDonald’s calls “a breakthrough for the beef industry”.

But this is complicated by a fragmented supply chain that makes it difficult to create one set of rules.

“The beef industry is large and complex. Different farmers, locations, and parts of the beef supply chain do things according to a variety of local, national, and industry expectations,” said Michele Banik-Rake, director of sustainability of the McDonald’s supply chain.

“In the past, this has made it impossible for us to apply a single standard for sustainability to our beef purchases.”

But it could take a while for the company’s aspirations to be fully realised. Bob Langert, the vice president of global sustainability at McDonald’s, said in an interview with Green Biz that the company isn’t ready to commit to the specific quantity of sustainable beef that it will purchase in 2016, or setting a deadline on its eventual goal of 100% sustainability.

“We will focus on increasing the annual amount each year,” he said.

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