May 6, 2014

Will your fast food beef be sustainableMcDonalds recently announced it would serve “verified sustainable” beef in its restaurants by 2016. However, many consumers aren’t quite sure what the term means, and given the company’s reputation (remember pink slime?), most people want a definition before they indulge.

If you’re a student of a Texas culinary arts program, you may see this verified sustainable beef in a McDonalds nearby, but you should know what it is before leaping at the term “sustainable.”

Sustainability initiative
Generally, “sustainable” products are food items that have been grown using techniques that preserve the soil (such as crop rotation) and support the continued work of the farmer. Sustainable food is also free of chemical pesticides. In fact, organic practices generally fall under the umbrella of sustainable, though organic products do not always qualify as sustainable. Sustainable produce is grown locally and seasonally with natural fertilizers. On the other hand, organic fruit could be planted out of the country and shipped to the U.S. during the off season, in which case it would not qualify as sustainable.

So how does McDonalds plan on getting sustainable beef? The chain, along with many others, has joined the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef. The multi-stakeholder initiative plans to improve the global sustainable beef market through collaboration. They identify areas in the market that need upgraded practices, provide a place for industry leaders to discuss sustainable options and promote the adoption of organic practices.

According to NPR, GRSB has not explicitly laid out its own guidelines of sustainability. While individual countries have their own definitions of the agricultural practices, the multi-national group could develop something else entirely.

“Those metrics have to be developed nationally,” Alex Bjork, manager of agriculture supply chains at the World Wildlife Fund, a member of the Sustainable Beef Roundtable, told NPR.

Quick changes
Because the GRSB has to navigate the world of sustainability to create it’s own definition, Bjork estimated it will not have solidified the guidelines for another 20 or so years. However, McDonalds claims it will have verified sustainable beef by 2016. NPR also noted that the GRSB will begin implementing pilot programs, which McDonalds will follow, in the next few years. So it’s not exactly verified sustainable beef, more like an attempt at sustainable beef.

McDonalds shared its three-step program for acquiring sustainable beef in its press release. In 2014, the company will develop sustainable principles. Next it plans to find sustainable retailers. By 2016, the company hopes to purchase this beef. McDonalds also claims it will lead through transparency, so perhaps consumers will be privy to the identities of chosen beef suppliers.

Skeptics chime in
If McDonalds begins serving sustainable and healthful beef, it could mean a positive change in the market. People who don’t want to spend much money on food will have access to meals that are at least somewhat better than hormone-injected varieties. However, some environmentalists and health activists are hesitant to take McDonalds’s word for it. Greenbiz notes that the company hasn’t announced what percentage of their beef will be sustainable, and others wonder if full implementation is even possible.