McDonald’s Corp. says it will attempt to purchase “verified sustainable” beef for its restaurants by 2016, according to a new “Beef Sustainability” page on its website.

Growing consumer demand for “responsibly raised” proteins, as well as an increasing number of restaurant chains making sustainably raised meats part of their positioning, could make McDonald’s planned transition difficult, especially given the amount of beef the Golden Arches buys per year. Even Denver-based Chipotle Mexican Grill, one of the largest restaurant chains to vocally support sustainable sourcing — its tagline is “Food With Integrity” — admitted last summer that the supply of beef from cattle raised without additional hormones or antibiotics was tightening.

Oak Brook, Ill.-based McDonald’s said it would “listen, learn and collaborate with stakeholders from farm to the front counter” to move its supply chain toward more sources of sustainable beef.

“We want to do our part to improve environmental practices in the way beef is produced, support positive workplaces in the beef industry, and drive continuous improvement in animal health and welfare,” the company said. “Plus, we envision doing all of this while providing affordability and quality, along with economic viability for those who raise cattle and produce beef.”

McDonald’s admitted its task would not be easy, “because there hasn’t been a universal definition of sustainable beef,” its website said. In response to that, McDonald’s created the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef with the World Wildlife Fund, Cargill, JBS and other stakeholders to draft principles and guidelines for sustainable beef.

The first part of McDonald’s three-year plan is to further develop those global principles in 2014, while creating targets for purchasing verified sustainable beef. The chain aims to be able to purchase sustainable beef by 2016.

The company added that it also hoped to reduce its environmental impact by partnering with more sustainable sources of beef. Following a carbon-footprint audit calculated in 2013 using a life-cycle analysis, McDonald’s found that about 70 percent of its greenhouse gas emission impacts occurred in its supply chain.

“Of those, around 40 percent are related to beef,” McDonald’s said. “Even though our purchases represent less than 2 percent of the total beef and dairy industry, we are working with other end users and the broader beef industry to address this important topic.”

Even before McDonald’s could begin to convert its supply chain to verified sustainable beef in 2016, steps taken toward that end could help the brand’s perceptions among the growing number of consumers who value sustainable supply chains. A rise in social consciousness — and the stricter expectations for brands that result from it — was identified as a key consumer behavior in Nation’s Restaurant News’ recent Forecast & Trends 2014 report.

McDonald’s operates or franchises nearly 35,000 restaurants in more than 100 countries, including more than 14,000 locations in the United States.

Contact Mark Brandau at mark.brandau@penton.com.
Follow him on Twitter: @Mark_from_NRN