Last week, we broke the story that McDonald’s plans to sell sustainable beef starting in 2016. More than 70 media outlets wrote about the news, often pointing out the next logical question: What is sustainable beef?
Author Joel Makower explored this and more in the pieces that followed: "How a Big Mac becomes sustainable" and "Can the beef industry collaborate its way to sustainability?" GreenBiz Group's chairman and executive editor spent several months talking with executives, ranchers and other insiders for his three-part series. There are more blanks to fill in about how, when, why and where this will all play out.
We expected a lively debate. Here’s how it has shaped up so far.
Skepticism was to be expected. “Sounds like an article from 'The Onion,'" commented Michelle Santini on the GreenBiz Facebook page.
"Sustainable beef of some sort, in some amount, in two years,” wrote Mary Beth Quirk at the Consumerist. "Better than nothing, perhaps."
However, the implications reach far beyond McDonald’s, as Seeking Alpha summed up, that a move "to follow in the path of Chipotle and Starbucks could create a large ripple effect in the meat industry."
Eldon Petherick, a commentor on the GreenBiz LinkedIn page, echoed that notion: "Advancements can only be sped up by a demand from market. McDonald's is a serious power in food production."
With high-profile collaborators such as Wal-Mart and Darden Restaurants, McDonald’s shift towards sustainability will affect more than environmentally-conscious customers. In the past, fast-food chains have been able to hide behind labels such as “"responsibly raised" or "fresh ground" beef. With McDonald’s shaping a new definition of sustainable beef, backed by both environmental group and retail big-shots, how will other chains adjust?
A Huffington Post blogger played up marketing motivations for the Golden Arches:
McDonald's faces increasing competition from chains such as Elevation Burger, B. Good, BurgerFi, The Counter, Farmer Boys, South St. Burger Co. and others that sell natural beef as well as a host of independent burger bars built around offering fresh, natural beef...23 percent of adults said they are willing to pay "slightly more" for beef (not just burgers) that is steroid-free. Another 11 percent would pay "significantly more" for the absence of steroids. Additionally, 21 percent say they'd pay slightly more for hormone-free, antibiotic-free and "natural" beef. That's enough of an endorsement to draw McDonald's attention.”
Many questioned whether sustainable beef is even possible. Bloomberg Businessweek focused on the health aspects of fast food. "Sustainably produced or not, a Big Mac will still have 550 calories and about half a day's recommended value of fat," wrote Susan Berfield.
"The resource intensity it requires to have a large segment of the population eating animals is inherently unsustainable. I applaud their efforts, but why not roll out a decent veggie burger?" wrote Shane McGrath on the GreenBiz LinkedIn page.
Ariel Schwartz of Fast Company had her eye on the long-term future of beef-eating itself: "This latest effort obviously is going to take a while to really get going. By the time McDonald's is able to scale up to 100 percent sustainably sourced beef, though, the world may have already moved on to lab-grown burgers."
The plight of McDonald’s minimum-wage fast-food workers was the concern for Lindsay Abrams of Salon. "Maybe it’ll even end up involving treating their employees as ethically as they hope to treat their cattle," she wrote.
Image of talking cow by tarasov via Shutterstock