McDonald's 'Sustainable Beef' Finally Has a Definition... Sort Of.

What does 'sustainable beef' actually mean? Here's what we know so far.

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By Kate Taylor • Mar 18, 2014

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Back in January, McDonald's announced plans to begin purchasing "verified sustainable beef" by 2016. The only problem was no one quite knew what verified sustainable beef was.

Lucky for ranchers and restaurateurs, we're getting closer to a definition. The Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (GRSB) released its draft principles and criteria for sustainable beef.

The document, which is open to public input and comments through May, is the result of more than a year of work by roundtable members such as McDonald's, Walmart, the World Wildlife Fund and several beef producers and environmental groups.

Worth noting is that the GSRB doesn't intend to create a set of standards or certification program for sustainable beef; it merely intends to provide a "common baseline understanding" of sustainable beef that other industry groups can build from.

Related: How This Food Blogger Convinced Chick-fil-A to Go Antibiotics Free

"GRSB defines sustainable beef as a socially responsible, environmentally sound and economically viable product that prioritizes our planet, people, the animals, and continuous progress," Cameron Bruett, president of the GRSB, said in a statement. "Our membership has worked in a collaborative fashion to boldly confront the challenges in every segment of the beef value chain."

Here are the principles the GSRB outlined for sustainable beef:

1. "Global sustainable beef stakeholders produce beef in a manner that identifies and manages natural resources responsibly and maintains or enhances the health of ecosystems." The most obvious environmentally-friendly aspect of sustainability: protecting natural resources by preserving land, water and other aspects of the environment. Meat has come under fire for contributing to greenhouse gases, and thus, global warming. Here, the GSRB includes the criteria that "Grazing, foraging and cropping management practices are implemented to promote resilience to climate change."

2. "Global sustainable beef stakeholders protect and respect human rights, and recognize the critical roles that all participants within the beef value chain play in their community regarding culture, heritage, employment, land rights and health." While environment is the most often discussed aspect of sustainability, this principle covers human rights, especially workers' rights. Notably, the draft states, "The cultural heritage and way of life of all parties are recognized and respected throughout the value chain."

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3. "Global sustainable beef stakeholders respect and manage animals to ensure their health and welfare." Without directly mentioning contentious topics such as factory farming or overreliance on antibiotics, this principle addresses animals' rights. "Cattle are kept in an environment (including stocking density, air quality and surfaces) that is conducive to good health and normal behavior and minimizes physical and thermal discomfort," the GSRB report says.

4. "Global sustainable beef stakeholders ensure the safety and quality of beef products and utilize information-sharing systems that promote beef sustainability." The fourth principle is centered on the consumer, focusing on the quality and safety of beef products through all stages of the production chain and urging "prompt resolution" of food contamination cases. "This principle and criteria rely upon integrity and transparency between all members of the value chain to ensure food safety and beef quality," the draft reads.

5. "Global sustainable beef stakeholders encourage innovation, optimize production, reduce waste and add to economic viability." In other words, every player in the chain of beef production should be as efficient as possible, looking forward to new methods and innovation to continue to improve the beef industry. "Efficiency and Innovation are seen as key to the continuous improvement for each of the other four GRSB principles for sustainable beef," the draft reads.

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

Kate Taylor


Kate Taylor is a reporter at Business Insider. She was previously a reporter at Entrepreneur. Get in touch with tips and feedback on Twitter at @Kate_H_Taylor. 

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