Whatever ‘Sustainable Beef’ Is, McDonald’s Pledges to Use More of It

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In search of effective new ways to continue to enhance public perceptions, could McDonald’s be turning to a Chipotle-like promise to begin to use sustainable beef?

McDonald’s this week pledged to source only “verified sustainable beef” beginning by 2016 in an effort to make its meat production both more environmentally friendly and kinder to the animals whose meat winds up in its burgers, as Time put it.

The chain said on its website that it wants “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.”[more]

It’s an interesting declaration by McDonald’s. Despite its introduction of a healthier menu and more nutrition-friendly marketing to kids, it continues to be the focus of nutrition critics. Its big new products of 2013, such as Mighty Wings, didn’t fare so well. The “new normal” of strapped American household budgets has made things tough on McDonald’s and its QSR competitors. No wonder the Wall Street Journal identified CEO Don Thompson as one of a half-dozen big US corporate chiefs who will be on the hot seat this year.

And then there’s Chipotle. The chain—once part of McDonald’s—lately has created buzz with an online video, The Scarecrow, which attacks big-company methods for sourcing ingredients such as beef and chicken, taking implied shots at fast-food chains such as McDonald’s and their traditional procurement practices. Chipotle tries hard to use only sustainable beef but has run into some supply issues itself lately.

That could be the rub for McDonald’s as well, despite its best intentions. Supply squeezes for sustainably raised meats “could make McDonald’s planned transition difficult,” according to Nation’s Restaurant News, “especially given the amount of beef the Golden Arches buys per year.”

Then there’s the definition of “sustainable.” As Time pointed out, it’s iffy so far. And McDonald’s admitted that “there hasn’t been a universal definition of sustainable beef.” So McDonald’s created a “Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef” with the World Wildlife Fund, Cargill, JBS and other stakeholders.

McDonald’s is still an 800-pound gorilla in the fast-food business, so when it wants to come up with a definition of “sustainable beef,” it can get others to the table.

It’s what they decide, though, that will affect McDonald’s future in the beef-selling market. 

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