Principles in place, McDonald’s looks to Canada for sustainable beef

Collage by GreenBiz Group. Cow and pasture by visuall2/Shutterstock
Collage by GreenBiz Group. Cow and pasture by visuall2/Shutterstock

Today, in São Paulo, a group representing the global beef industry is taking a big step forward in the quest for sustainable beef. The Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef is formally approving the “principles and criteria” that will drive sustainable beef standards around the world.

Today’s meeting brings together GRSB members from at least 18 countries — cattle ranchers, feedlot operators, packers, wholesalers, restaurants and retailers, along with academics, activists and others who have been engaged in recent years in reducing the environmental and social impacts of bringing beef to market.

The Principles & Criteria document (PDF) is designed to create a common platform for countries and regions to set their own standards and certification systems in the coming years.

Most significant, the document will enable McDonald’s to press forward on its goal, announced in January, of bringing sustainable beef to market in 2016, part of a longer-term aspiration to make all of its beef sustainably sourced worldwide.

The world’s largest fast-food company said it will source its first verified sustainable beef from Canada. The Canadian beef industry will need to create a standard and verification scheme that will enable McDonald’s to meet its 2016 goal.

The Principles & Criteria document covers five broad topics: Natural Resources; People and the Community; Animal Health and Welfare; Food; and Efficiency and Innovation. Under each is a series of broad criteria (“Water and land resources are managed throughout the value chain to ensure responsible and efficient use”), to which indicators and metrics will be assigned as each country or region develops its own sustainable beef standard.

Getting to today was no small feat, given the complexities of the beef supply chain and the wide range of opinions on what should constitute “sustainability” in the beef industry.

(View a video of the panel discussion about McDonald’s and sustainable beef from the 2014 GreenBiz Forum.)

“It was a very interactive and transparent process among our membership,” Cameron Bruett, president of GRSB and chief sustainability officer for JBS USA, a beef-processing company, told me last week.

“It necessarily was a negotiation, a lengthy discussion, and sometimes a difficult discussion depending upon the issue that was being addressed. We have some very passionate members who are not shy about bringing their passions to the table, so that was educational and informative. I think we arrived at a product that probably doesn’t meet 100 percent of any member’s needs, but certainly represents a negotiated, transparent outcome that everyone agrees is an outstanding vehicle by which to move forward.”

Oh, Canada

To be sure, there were some contentious issues, such as animal welfare, said Bruett. “Those who deal with animals on a day-to-day basis and who are responsible for animal husbandry have one view of industry-accepted practices, whereas other people who may not be directly involved in animal husbandry but are very concerned with animal welfare may have a slightly more sensitive view in regards to public perception.”

Regional differences were a factor, too, he said: “Something that may be incredibly relevant to Europe may not be relevant for Brazil or Australia.”

One result is that the group really tried to stay technology-neutral. For example, some members wanted to curb the use of beta agonists, antibiotics and hormones in raising beef cattle raising. Another contentious area was around grass-fed versus “intensified feeding” and other processes for fattening cattle headed to market.

On the other hand, Bruett was surprised that some social issues were easier to discuss than he expected. “Regardless of the person’s vantage point, people recognized the economic impact of beef production on rural counties, rural economies and the people involved. I thought it was a pretty good balance between people, planet and animals.”

For McDonald’s, today’s document undergirds a process it has been pursuing since January for Canada to become the first country to produce verified sustainable beef for the company.

“We are working with ranchers in Canada, the Canadian roundtable and the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association to establish what indicators and verification systems will look like for Canada that fit underneath the global roundtable,” Michele Banik-Rake, director of Sustainability — Worldwide Supply Chain at McDonald’s, told me in a call from São Paulo.

Over the next year or so, those groups will develop a Canadian standard and third-party verification system that McDonald’s and others can use to procure verified sustainable beef. Banik-Rake said that beef produced in Canada likely will be sold and consumed within that country.

McDonald’s is working with a U.S.-based company that does audits for the FDA and the USDA “that are experts in helping us think our way through this,” said Banik-Rake, who would not name the company. “They will be helping us train the verifiers on how to do the verification.

It’s not just Canada that’s moving forward, she said: “Now, with the principles and criteria approved, we’re hoping that we can begin other pilots elsewhere as well, taking some of the learnings that we’ve gotten from Canada so far as we’ve collaborated with multi-stakehold mucer groups there.”

Indeed, said Banik-Rake, other countries may beat Canada to market with sustainable beef. “If you asked our European colleagues, they would tell you that Ireland will be first. We’re hoping to just have a number of activities going on, and lots of ‘firsts’ in 2016 from different parts of the world.”

Waste, not

One area of focus during the development of the GRSB principles and criteria was the amount of beef produced that never gets eaten.

“There was a recognition that the roundtable needs to take on food waste,” said Bruett. “We put a lot of fertilizer and water and fantastic cattle genetics into trashcans in households all across the world every evening.”

Sustainability, in other words, needs to include not just how a product is produced, but how it is sold and consumed, he said. Beyond the cattle ranch or meat packer, there is a need to focus on what happens when beef reaches, say, a McDonald’s restaurant or a Walmart warehouse.

“Everyone agreed very early on, ‘This has to be a holistic approach. We all have shared responsibility.’ You can’t create a sustainable sourcing model if you just waste the product on the back end. We’re defeating the purpose.”uch c

Meanwhile, McDonald’s is pressing forward toward its 2016 goal.

“We’re working with a very small group of [Canadian] ranchers to help us test out what these indicators could look like,” said Banik-Rake. She said McDonald’s doesn’t yet know how much verified sustainable beef it will produce in 2016, or exactly where it will be sold, presumably somewhere within Canada. And it’s not likely that the company will label any particular Big Mac of Quarter Pounder as “sustainable,” said Banik-Rake. “Like most other initiatives that started this way, we will probably start with a mass-balance approach that says, ‘X percent of the beef that’s being produced in Canada has come from verified sustainable sources.’”

McDonald’s is well aware that the world is watching this high-wire supply-chain act. “It’s not just about telling the story anymore,” said Banik-Rake. “It’s about proving the story, because that’s what customers need to feel confident; that’s what they’re asking us for: ‘Tell me where my food comes from. Tell me how it’s being prepared. Tell me the animals are being taken care of.’ Those are the things that we need to demonstrate and show.”

But she is encouraged by the cooperation within the industry: “I’ve presented to a number of the producers in Canada and I’m waiting for the rancher that wags his finger in my face and says, ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about; this is ridiculous. I’m a fifth-generation farmer. What’s more sustainable than that?’ That’s the kind of rhetoric we heard early on, seven or eight months ago. I’m not hearing any of that now.”

She’s encouraged by the way the whole process is moving forward. “We’ve not run into any big hurdles and I think it’s because we said right from the beginning that we’re going to collaborate and work hand-in-glove with the ranchers. We’re not coming in with the McDonald’s standard; that was never our intent. We want to move the industry. This isn’t just about McDonald’s.”