Americans love beef but have limited visibility on the meat’s journey from ranch to restaurant. An innovative two-year pilot program between McDonald’s and stakeholders of the U.S. Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (USRSB) aims to change that dynamic. Key partners include Tyson Foods, Golden State Foods and Beef Marketing Group.
Program participants will follow cattle from the time they are born to when they are processed. Along the way, McDonald’s will evaluate how its beef production stacks up against USRSB’s six high-priority indicators,such as animal health, water resources and greenhouse gas emissions.
The effort illustrates how sustainability is a core part of McDonald’s corporate growth strategy and its Scale for Good approach, explains Rickette Collins, senior director, global supply chain.
“We really want to understand how we might start to capture some of the information that’s happening that might be rolled up and reported so we can talk with our customers,” says Collins of McDonald’s, which is placing renewed emphasis on marketing hamburgers. “Are there key data points we can pull out? Could we share them at a high level? That would give them trust.”
One of the ranchers participating in the program is Meredith Ellis, who runs 200 cows on 2,500 acres about an hour and a half north of Dallas. For years, her family has been a part of Noble Research Institute’s Integrity Beef Alliance. So, when McDonald’s approached the institute about partnering to trace their beef supply, the Ellis ranch naturally fit the restaurant’s needs.
The family sold its calves at the end of November 2017, and the calves were processed in the spring of 2018. They’re helping McDonald’s document animal well-being, genetic quality, grazing environment and greenhouse gas emissions.
Texas rancher Meredith Ellis says it's important to build trust with consumers. Photo: Meredith Ellis
“The reason we jumped at the chance to participate in this is because our ranch is focused on quality, and we want to be the most progressive ranch that we can possibly be,” Ellis says. “I have a 3-year-old son, and I want to be able to say at the end of my life that I did something beneficial for the environment and for his future. I want to be pushed to do better. If you’re not being pushed to do better, then you’re falling behind.”
Connections Back the the Farmer
Developing programs to tell stories to consumers represents a new direction for the entire beef supply chain. In the past, McDonald’s has collected data about its supply chain to share with suppliers and packers. But as more consumers ask where their food comes from, McDonald’s is focused on surfacing the stories of farmers and ranchers working to ensure a sustainable supply.
The Integrity Beef Sustainability Pilot project is part of a larger effort to help farmers and ranchers document and improve on their sustainable beef practices. In May, USRSB unveiled its sustainability metrics for the beef supply chain. Public comments about the metrics will be used to make revisions and create guides that farmers, ranchers, packers and retailers can use to assess and adjust their practices.
“I think pilot projects are key to demonstrating that the work we have developed is meaningful,” says Kim Stackhouse-Lawson, USRSB chair. “One of the things really important to the roundtable is our ability to build credibility, trust and dialogue.”
More than 200 experts from across the beef supply chain developed the materials that will be used to guide the rest of the supply chain on sustainable production practices.
Photo: Meredith Ellis
The existing Integrity Beef Program laid a valuable foundation for the pilot program, says Deke Alkire, project manager and a researcher employed by the Noble Research Institute. Some of the calves enrolled in Integrity Beef will be purchased for the Integrity Beef Sustainability project, and producers in that program are already required to have certain practices in place, such as a grazing management plan, a herd health protocol and be Beef Quality Assurance certified. But the objectives of the work are farther reaching.
“The main goal of this is not as a research project but testing USRSB metrics and identifying areas where we can improve the system,” Alkire explains. “What can we learn from this process to make the beef supply chain better? What feedback can we provide not only to the U.S. Roundtable about their metrics and self-assessment guides, but what else can we share back with producers and each segment?”
Sustainability Has Real Value
If ranchers can predict how their calves will perform at a feedlot, they can sell better cattle at more competitive prices. And feedlots can benefit by sourcing calves they know are healthy and have received a good vaccination protocol.
Those successes and ongoing efforts to improve practices can provide a platform for ranchers, who are typically pretty quiet people, to reach consumers, Ellis says.
Ranchers are working to improve ranchland and animal well-being while building viable family businesses, and those stories need to be told. “I think this whole project has really opened my eyes to that,” she says.