McDonald’s fast food restaurants shook up the meat industry worldwide in January when it announced plans to begin purchasing ‘sustainable beef’ in 2016.  By its own estimates, the company purchases almost 2 percent of the annual global beef supply.  It has not set a quantity target for 2016, but plans to develop a percentage target for 2020.  McDonald’s already has sustainable criteria of other products and plans to next focus on poultry, 12 percent of the company’s carbon footprint, in 12 to 18 months.

The company first needs a definition of sustainable beef.  McDonald’s plans to use the definition established by the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (GRSB); it is a founding member.  Other members include Walmart, processors like Cargill and JBS, cattle producer groups including the U.S. National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), Canadian Cattlemen’s Association and Cattle Council of Australia, and NGOs like World Wildlife Fund and National Wildlife Federation.  The President is Cameron Bruett, Head of Corporate Affairs at JBS USA, the world’s largest beef processor.  The GRSB aim is to facilitate a global dialogue to advance continuous improvement in the sustainability of the global beef value chain.

The group, formed in 2012, has identified five principles of sustainability: natural resources, people and the community, animal health & welfare, food safety and quality, and efficiency and innovation.  A list of criteria and intent has been developed for each principle.  These principles are tied together by a triple bottom line of social responsible, economically viable and environmentally sound.  A draft version was available on their website for public comment and review from mid-March to mid-May.  Their current summary definition is “We define sustainable beef as a socially responsible, environmentally sound and economically viable product that prioritizes planet, people, animals and progress.”  Roundtable members will vote on a final version later this year.

According to a three-part series on McDonald’s quest for sustainable beef by Joel Makower on in January, McDonald’s has a history of working with non-profits and consultants on public policy issues that impact the company.  In 1989, Bob Langert, now McDonald’s vice president, global sustainability, began working with the Environmental Defense Fund to find solutions to solid waste management, a major headache for McDonald’s at that time.  That effort resulted in waste-reductions in the 1990s that saved about 300 million pounds of packaging, with no additional investment.

In the series, Langert’s boss, J.C. Gonzalez-Mendez, senior vice president of global CSR, sustainability and philanthropy, described the larger vision: “We aspire to source all of our food and packaging from sustainable sources, verified sources for sustainability on the way they treat animals, on the way they treat people, as well as the planet.”  A cursory review of the McDonald’s website shows the sustainability goal, however defined, is widely accepted and being put in place.  It is not going away.  McDonald’s is currently buying fish that is certified sustainable and committed by 2020 to 100 percent sustainable palm oil, 100 percent sustainable coffee and 100 percent sustainable fiber in packaging that is recyclable or compostable.

On what prompted McDonald’s to set the 2016 goal for beef, Francesca DeBiasca, vice president, strategic sourcing and sustainability, worldwide supply chain management, told Meatingplace magazine, “When we talk to our customers they are telling us, ‘We want to eat more beef.  We like beef.   But we also want to feel good about what we are eating.’”  Asked about the biggest misconception of this decision, she said it is that McDonald’s is going to dictate or mandate some definition and tell producers what to do.  McDonald’s brings the customer’s voice to the table because they have 70 million customers per day.  According to McDonald’s website, 70 percent of the company’s total greenhouse gas emissions come from its supply chain and around 40 percent of that is from beef.

Bruett, the GRSB President, told Meatingplace that sustainability issues will vary by country.  For example, the Brazilian focus will likely be on deforestation of the Amazon, while in the U.S. the focus will be on feedlots and water use, water quality and nutrient management.  Australia, Canada and Europe are further along in traceability of beef than the U.S.  By 2016, 100 percent of Ireland’s agricultural exports will come from farms that have joined the country’s voluntary sustainability program.  While some people in the U.S. beef industry are expecting to be paid for providing traceability, companies like McDonald’s increasingly see it in the long run as a normal part of doing business.

Hal Hamilton, co-founder of the Sustainable Food Lab, which is working with McDonald’s, Walmart, NCBA and others, told Meatingplace, “In the end, everyone’s customers will want some assurances that there is not a risk in their supply chain from environmental or social problems.”

Where sustainability goes in the marketplace will be determined by consumers’ assurances about feeling good about the eating experience and supply chain assurances of avoiding problems.  GRSB’s intent to not set standards or to create a certification program, but to provide a common baseline understanding of sustainable beef that national roundtables and other initiatives can use to meet their needs that will help in matching sustainability principles with local production realities.  The underlying criteria and indicators will need to reflect real differences in production systems.

There are efforts to define sustainability for many products, but there is probably none that has more connection with consumers in the U.S. and around the world than McDonald’s.  They have to do it on a worldwide scale and at a cost that allows it to remain competitive in the mass market of fast food restaurants.

Ross Korves is a Trade and Economic Policy Analyst with Truth About Trade &Technology ( Follow us: @TruthAboutTrade on Twitter |Truth About Trade & Technology on Facebook.