Consumers Drive McDonald's Sustainable Beef

April 25, 2015 02:24 AM
Consumers Drive McDonald's Sustainable Beef

The global fast-food giant wants to “collaborate, not mandate” 

The chief architect of McDonald’s sustainability project says it’s driven by consumers not by activists.

“Sustainability is part of growing our business and your business,” said Bob Langert, speaking to cattlemen at Kansas State University’s annual Cattlemen’s Day in Manhattan, Kan., in March. “It’s the biggest trend (for food companies) over the past seven years.”

Formerly the vice president of sustainability for McDonald’s (he retired Feb. 28 after 32 years with the company), Langert described how the global fast food giant works to keep 70 million customers happy each day. 

“The consumer has evolved tremendously over the last five to 10 years,” he said. “Ten years ago, I would have said, ‘yes, they care about price, quality and safety,’ but those things just don’t get us to the finish line anymore. More and more people care—and it’s broad-based, not just a fringe element anymore—about feeling good about the food they eat, where it comes from, how its produced, what’s put in it, how it’s processed. This is very mainstream. Sustainability is not a choice—it’s here.”  

McDonald’s views sustainability as having three components: social, environmental and economic. “And we can’t shortchange the economic aspect of it.”

"We don’t want to raise animals. We have a shared commitment, and we value the whole supply chain."
—Bob Langert, former McDonald’s vice president of sustainability

In 2014, McDonald’s announced it would start sourcing “verified sustainable beef” from an unnamed country beginning in 2016. This March, McDonald’s Canadian sustainability manager Jeffrey Fitzpatrick-Stilwell told attendees at the Alberta Beef Industry Conference that country will be Canada, though Langert told cattlemen in Kansas they should not read too much into that selection.

“We didn’t create sustainable beef on a whim,” Langert said. “Beef is who we are.” He said the company seeks to make beef “more relevant and modern to consumers.”

Does this new emphasis on sustainability mean McDonald’s will be telling ranchers how to raise their cattle? “No,” Langert said. “I don’t think that would be a good way to do it because we’re good at running restaurants, but not at raising beef. … We’re in this to collaborate, not mandate.”

That approach could provide some reassurance to those in the industry who are worried about what these sustainability efforts might mean for their operations—and their financials. 

In developing its sustainable beef initiative, Langert said McDonald’s seeks to make beef “more attractive. People want to eat food that they feel good about.”

Those consumers, Langert said, feel good about beef when they know more about the product.

“The values consumers have are important to us. Customers more than ever want to know where their food comes from, how it’s processed, what’s in it, and they expect companies—like McDonald’s and others—to treat people with respect for the social part, the animal welfare part and the environmental aspect,” Langert 
explained. “It’s really the triple bottom line of people, planet and profit.”

McDonald’s goals moving forward are to build consumer trust, and their advertising is meant to “define who we are as a brand and what we stand for,” he added. Langert said the company’s sustainability framework consists of five components: food, sourcing, people, planet and community. 

As the largest buyer of Canadian beef, McDonald’s sustainable beef pilot project will use a set of 40 indicators to assess sustainability. The scoring system will grade ranches, feedlots and other stakeholders in the beef chain. The company also picked a U.S. verification company, Colorado-based Where Food Comes From, Inc., to work with stakeholders.

Fitzpatrick-Stilwell told cattlemen in Alberta, “This is not a certification regime—this is a verification opportunity. It’s about information sharing, not policing. It’s about producers demonstrating how they meet the criteria. It’s not an audit, and it’s not pass/fail.”

Langert assured cattlemen that “we don’t want to raise animals. We have a shared commitment, and we value the whole supply chain.” 

Sustainability, however, will become an integral part of McDonald’s future. In addition to sourcing a portion of their beef deemed sustainable next year, by 2020, the company plans to source all of their coffee, palm oil, fish and packaging from sustainable sources.

More About Sustainable Beef

The Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (GRSB) was launched in 2012 “to advance continuous improvement in the global beef value chain sustainability through leadership, science and multi-stakeholder 
engagement and collaboration.” 

The GRSB envisions a world in which all aspects of the beef value chain are environmentally sound, socially responsible and economically viable.

Members of GRSB include: McDonald’s, World Wildlife Fund, Cargill, JBS, Elanco, Merck, Wal-Mart, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, Certified Angus Beef, Canadian Cattlemen’s Association and the Cattle Council of Australia.

To learn more about the GRSB and international efforts to provide sustainable beef, visit www.grsbeeforg.

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