Last week, one of the Big Four meatpackers in the U.S. announced plans to produce sustainable beef, but environmentalists did not rejoice. According to a company press release, Cargill Cattle Feeders and Vela Environmental, in a joint venture, will “create a verified beef supply chain sustainability assessment program for Cargill.” This comes on the heels of November’s Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, in São Paulo, Brazil. Cargill was a Diamond sponsor of the event along with one of their biggest customers, McDonald’s, who was in desperate need of a productive meeting.
The clock is ticking for McDonald’s. Back in January they made a splash by setting a goal to serve sustainable beef by 2016. The immediate reaction was simply “what is sustainable beef?” There wasn’t a certification program in place, nor any accepted standard for what would make beef production “sustainable”. Now there will be a standard and conveniently McDonald’s beef supplier is going to help write it. What sounded like a potential game changer from the fast food giant now looks more like the big boys about to update the rule book in the middle of the game.
McDonald’s certainly needs the help. Their third quarter earnings report showed U.S. sales down almost five percent. Some spark is required to turn around their poor performance, and they’re looking to a competitor for direction. McDonald’s once owned a majority stake in the fast casual chain Chipotle. They divested themselves entirely in 2006, and Chipotle has done nothing but make huge gains since. In the third quarter, their same store sales were up nearly twenty percent. Their popularity is growing and much of it has to do with their commitment to using ethically raised animals.
Chipotle’s divergence from their ethos of “serving the very best sustainably raised food possible” is well documented. Nearly one hundred percent of their meat was hormone-free and antibiotic-free (aka all-natural) in 2012. Through their own growth and the shrinking of the cattle population in 2013 that number dropped somewhere between eighty and eighty-five percent. With continued growth they’ve begun to look to Australia to help supply their beef needs, but since 1999, their goal has consistently been to use as much all-natural meat as is feasible.
Chipotle sales are roughly $10 billion less per quarter than McDonald’s $10.9 billion mark, yet they’ve been able to leverage beef companies into producing more and more all-natural beef for their supply chain. If McDonald’s had chosen that route they could have made a real difference in the harmful over-use of antibiotics in cattle, but instead they opted for a route through the side door and let Cargill do the questionable leg work to create said “sustainable” beef.
Those sustainable beef guidelines are yet to be written, and there’s a possibility that they have some teeth. However, it’s just as likely that they result in more of the status quo. By committing to a 2016 deadline, McDonald’s isn’t allowing much time for a beef production overhaul at Cargill once those new sustainable standards are written, especially when you add in the lifespan of a market-ready steer. It’s barely enough time to design the new “sustainable” stamp. As Ferd Hoefner, the Policy Director with the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, told Munchies, “If something the size of McDonald’s is going to have any hope of supplying their customers with what the company says is sustainable beef, they’ll either need to weaken their standards or delay their 2016 goal.” There hasn’t been an announcement of any expected delay.
Eventually those “sustainable” stamps will make it onto your grocery store shelves, so just be sure you know what it means when you see it. It might not be as sustainable as you’d hoped.