How Real Is McDonalds Aim To Buy Sustainable Beef?


How genuine is McDonalds claim that they will begin purchasing verified sustainable beef in 2016? The jury is still out.

According to their own websiteMcDonalds “aims to begin purchasing verified sustainable beef in 2016.” In a page dedicated to this ‘journey’ the world’s largest fast food chain says:

…we want to do our part to improve environmental practices in the way beef is produced, support positive workplaces in the beef industry, and drive continuous improvement in animal health and welfare. Plus, we envision doing all of this while providing affordability and quality, along with economic viability for those who raise cattle and produce beef.

Citing real challenges including the lack of a universal definition of sustainable beef, McDonalds has ‘joined forces with other stakeholders to build coalitions and influence industry-wide change.’  The fast food chain has collaborated with World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Cargill, JBS, and others to develop the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (GRSB). Their website lays out a three-part plan:

McDonald’s Three Part Plan for Sustainable Beef

1. Our Aspirations

  • Support development of global principles and criteria in 2014
  • Develop targets for purchasing verified sustainable beef
  • Begin purchasing verified sustainable beef during 2016

2. Our Vision: McDonald’s beef comes from farmers and processors who create economic value and nutritious protein through verifiable and diverse production systems that:

  • Optimize cattle’s impact within ecosystems and nutrient cycles
  • Positively impact the lives of their employees and the communities in which they operate
  • Care for the welfare of the cattle throughout their lives

3. Our Approach

  • Create principles and criteria for sustainable beef production
  • Identify and test sustainable beef production practices
  • Lead with transparency and engagement
  • Work closely with our suppliers and other partners for change in the industry

The website also points out that over the years, McDonalds has purchased ‘varying quantities’ of whitefish certified by the Marine Stewardship Council, coffee certified by the Rainforest Alliance, and packaging certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. If only they would improve their chicken nuggets, but I digress…

This all sounds good to me. But, is there a catch? I think it laudable that McDonalds is putting it out there and addressing the issues. Many companies would shy away from the topic for fear of public criticism. When a company like McDonalds is criticized for ‘not doing enough,’ it creates an environment where companies don’t want to do anything. As Joel Makower says:

I don’t think there are many companies that are just talking the talk without walking the walk. I think it’s quite the opposite. Companies are doing much more than they’re saying. For example, GM has about 140 assembly plants around the world and about 100 of them have achieved 0 rate landfill, which is a really remarkable achievement. They’re dedicating millions of dollars a year to improve overall efficiency, but it has nothing to do with selling Chevys so they’re not going to promote it in a Chevy showroom. If they were to promote it, they’d probably get attacked by environmental critics saying, “If you’re going to talk about that, what about the internal combustion engines?”

And, although it doesn’t seem obvious, I’m sure McDonalds move is driven by the benefits to them. You can bet a company with a supply chain as big as McDonalds is probably doing this for their own benefit as well as for the benefit of the environment. But, a win-win change is the best kind.

McDonalds has the power to be a game changer and I for am happy to see their efforts. That is, if there efforts actual move the dial rather than create a symbolic drop in the bucket. It remains to be seen if this effort is just more greenwash or actually meaningful. I, for one, am hoping for the latter.

Image Credit: Creative Commons photo by daverugby


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2 thoughts on “How Real Is McDonalds Aim To Buy Sustainable Beef?”

  1. Those who care about the consequences of dietary practices for human health, animal welfare, and environmental quality have many good reasons to be skeptical about corporate culture in general and McDonald’s in particular. At the same time, it would be irresponsible to let a well-deserved skepticism become a paralyzing cynicism that keeps us from recognizing and celebrating a positive development just because it arises from such an unexpected quarter. Of course, McDonald’s is acting out of concerns for the corporate bottom line rather than from idealism about the issues many of us care about, involving the health and wellbeing of humans, animals, and the planet. But that shouldn’t surprise anyone. How could it be otherwise, given our profit-driven economic system? On the other hand, we need all the help we can get, whatever its source. Maybe it’s time to say, “Two cheers for McDonald’s!” Ms. Kaplan’s analysis gets it right: clearly we will have to wait and see about the implementation of the practices that McDonald’s has announced, but in the meantime it would be short-sighted and self-defeating to dismiss this change because of a well-deserved cynicism about its source. We should celebrate an unexpectedly positive step by a leading purchaser/provider of food for Americans, monitor the degree to which they follow through on their promises, and encourage other fast-food chains to enact similar changes. This is not a time for letting a well-deserved cynicism about corporate motives keep us from acknowledging and celebrating something good just because it comes from McDonald’s. Those who care about the health of humans, animals, and the earth can’t afford the luxury of dismissing a positive movement just because it comes from such an unexpected source.

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