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How McDonald's Defines 'Sustainable' Beef Will Impact the Entire Industry

How McDonald's Defines 'Sustainable' Beef Will Impact the Entire Industry
Image credit: Brian Blanco/USA Today

Forget "Where's the beef?" For McDonald's, the question is "What's the beef?'"

McDonald's announced plans yesterday to begin purchasing "verified sustainable" beef by 2016. First, however, the burger chain needs to figure out exactly what "sustainable beef" means-- a question that will impact the entire industry.

With no working definition of "sustainable" beef, McDonald's and other food-industry stakeholders have created the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (GRSB). Founding members of the GRSB include environmental groups, beef industry suppliers and retailers such as Wal-Mart and Darden Restaurants (owner of Olive Garden and LongHorn Steakhouse).

"The direction by the GRSB will impact the entire beef industry, not just McDonald's," said McDonald's spokesperson Jon Rump. "We are optimistic and confident that the criteria will meet the needs of all stakeholders, including McDonald's."

Related: McDonald's to Scrap Soda From 'Happy Meal' Ads, Offer Healthy Sides in Value Meals

The GRSB's understanding of sustainability remain nebulous, with unclear effects on the industry.

"Where the beef will come from and where it will be sold is part of the work in progress," said Rump. "Traceability will likely be a key part of the standards outlined by the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (GRSB). Some areas of the world are more advanced when it comes to traceability capabilities and it is likely that our first purchases will come from one of those areas."

The group's "Principles and Criteria for Sustainable Beef" is set to be released to the public on March 1, according to GreenBiz.com. So far, McDonald's webpage on sustainable beef indicates that changes will necessitate production cycles that positively impact employees, care for the welfare of cattle and "optimize cattle's impact within ecosystems and nutrient cycles." 

As the beef supply chain is made up of independent players from ranchers to patty producers, a thorough industry definition of sustainability takes both time and cooperation. McDonald's began its work on sustainable beef in 2011. This year, the company hopes to develop principles and criteria. By 2016, the goal is to begin purchasing verified sustainable beef.

With high-profile collaborators such as Wal-Mart and Darden Restaurants, McDonald's shift towards sustainability will affect more than environmentally-conscious customers. In the past, fast-food chains have been able to hide behind labels such as "responsibly raised" or "fresh ground" beef. With McDonald's shaping a new definition of sustainable beef, backed by both environmental group and retail big-shots, how will other chains adjust?

Related: What's the Beef? Chipotle Faces Loyalty Issues Over Meat Standards

Kate Taylor is a staff writer for Entrepreneur.com.

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