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McDonald’s Sustainable Beef Promises — 10 Years Later

Photo Courtesy Brett Jordan

Ever order a Big Mac with a six-piece McNugget, medium fries, and a McFlurry…only to find out that the ice cream machine is broken? McDonald’s tasty frozen treats might be hit or miss, but their efforts to decrease their carbon footprint are on solid ground. 

Like other big businesses, McDonald’s is grappling with the reality of climate change. There has been ample consideration among the company’s leadership about how to supply the world with burgers and fries with a minimal carbon footprint, and it hasn’t been without challenges. 

Ten years ago, GreenBiz co-founder and chairman Joel Makower wrote a three-part series analyzing McDonald’s beef supply chain after the company declared it would source and purchase its beef with 100% sustainability. Makower spoke to several industry leaders and executives to understand better how the Golden Arches planned to do this. 

The company also set climate-friendly initiatives to source sustainable palm oil and fish would only come from Marine Stewardship Council-certified fisheries.

Similarly, espresso in the U.S., all coffee in New Zealand and Australia, and all coffee in Europe, except for decaf, had to be Rainforest Alliance-certified. 

Photo Courtesy Christian Wiediger

Beef seems to be the trickiest part of McDonald’s supply chain to change. In 2014, Makower learned that McDonald’s ground beef is made from the trim around steaks and roasts, using the entire cow carcass. Ten years after making this announcement, Makower wrote another piece assessing the progress in transforming the beef supply chain. Substantial progress was made, but there is still a long way to go. 

With beef production and cattle ranching, the notable concerns are deforestation and using soybean feed. Land is consistently cleared for cattle ranches, causing more trees to be lost. Soybeans, meanwhile, are water-intensive crops and generate methane emissions from cow burps. 

To tackle some of these issues, McDonald’s became a founding member of the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (GRSB) in 2012. Members include the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Brazil. A European Roundtable of Poland, Germany, Ireland, and Italy handles the European beef chain. 

McDonald’s also runs a Flagship Farmers Program to recognize the efforts of sustainable ranchers.

The company says it wants to work with farmers to provide education about sustainable efforts, which include tracking soil health, better grazing, animal welfare, greenhouse gas reduction, and ecosystem protection. 

Photo Courtesy Daniel Quiceno M

Despite these strategies, McDonald’s hasn’t set any notable sustainability goals for the beef supply chain. However, the company has set significant climate action goals to achieve before 2050. 

Most involve physical restaurants deploying renewable energy systems, implementing circular economies for packaging and waste, and more climate solutions in the supply chain. The progress in this area is more recognizable. The company expects a 33% reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from its 2015 baseline, resulting from projects between 2019 and 2023.  

Food supply chains remain the hardest aspect to change. However, executive leadership says the 10-year beef sustainability journey has revealed many truths about McDonald’s sustainable supply chain. 

“One of our major philosophical evolutions is that the resiliency of our supply chain is dependent on a lot of same objectives that fall under sustainability,” Luke McKelvie, McDonald’s global farmer program manager and member of the company’s Global Sustainable Sourcing & Resiliency team, said to Makower. “And I think one of the best examples of that is regenerative agriculture.” 

Regenerative agriculture is considered one of the best solutions to soil health, erosion, and biodiversity. Cattle raised from regenerative practices used to be expensive commodities, but no longer. 

McDonald’s even funded a research project on adaptive multi-paddock grazing. This process mimics wild animal grazing.

Cattle are moved across small fields or paddocks for short periods to ensure the vegetation can regrow. The fields aren’t touched, so less water is used while the soil remains fertile. The restaurant chain truly believes in this regenerative process, and so do farmers. 

When the sustainable beef announcement broke in 2014, McDonald’s tried to source directly from certified sustainable ranchers in Canada. It managed to buy 300,000 pounds of sustainable beef, which led to 2.4 million sustainable burger patties. However, that’s only a 10th of the global average of burgers sold annually. More solutions are needed. 

Photo Courtesy Visual Karsa

The company says its beef patties must meet deforestation-free guidelines before being picked up from processing plants. It wants to eliminate deforestation from its global supply chain by 2030 for beef, soy, palm oil, coffee, and fiber for packaging. 

However, having a franchise as massive as McDonald’s leaves room for shady practices to return to the supply chain. McDonald’s can’t monitor every farmer it works with, but it can mitigate the climate risks associated with beef sourcing. 

Food processors like Cargill, JBS, and Tyson — McDonald’s intermediary meat suppliers — are implementing regenerative solutions to reduce waste and GHG emissions. These efforts will be necessary as the Golden Arches continues its expansion. New and reintroduced menu options like the Double Big Mac only increase the demand for beef, which is an issue for the company’s critics. 

There’s no indication McDonald’s going sustainable will make their food healthier. The company has avoided saying that, especially since the general public has become more knowledgeable about nutrition facts. It also hasn’t revived the McPlant, a plant-based burger that ran from November 2021 to August 2022. It’s unknown if McDonald’s will bring it back or experiment with more plant-based alternatives.

Jason Clay, World Wildlife Fund’s senior vice president and executive director of Market Initiative, told Makower, “I think they’re walking the talk, they’re not just talking it,” when asked if McDonald’s was making a concerted effort to improve its beef sourcing. He also said that no fast food chain is moving fast enough for any climate watchdog group. Achieving a net-zero supply chain is difficult, especially for a company the size of McDonald’s. 

Makower discovered that McDonald’s had done some things right in its sustainable supply chain efforts, but it’s still off the mark in a few ways. However, other fast food restaurants haven’t even begun to attempt to do what McDonald’s is doing, and it’s safe to say on a smaller scale than the Golden Arches. McDonald’s sustainability executives say the company will change with the pace of new green technology and strategies, but that it is at the whims of the consumer market and the scientific breakthroughs in global sustainability.


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