McDonald’s Is Exploring a New Menu Item: Sustainable Beef

February 27, 2017, 8:11 PM UTC

Fast food giant McDonald’s (MCD) is directing its massive purchasing power to influence a new focus area in the food industry—sustainable beef.

The company, one of the largest beef purchasers globally—it purchases 2.5% of all the beef produced in the European Union alone—is a key player in the launch of two sustainable beef pilot programs in the U.S. One will attempt to measure beef sustainability through the entire supply chain in a research initiative conducted by the Noble Foundation. The other is a $4.5 million matching grant program run by a group of researchers to test grazing practices that can lead to a negative carbon impact.

The company’s work on the issue goes back to 2012 when it became a founding member of the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, which defines sustainable beef as socially responsible, environmentally sound, and economically viable. That includes maintaining or improving soil health and air quality as well as protecting water. McDonald’s has also committed to eliminating deforestation from its beef supply chain by 2020, which the company says makes it “one of the first global restaurant brands to take a stand to confirm that forests are protected while beef is produced.”

McDonald’s started buying sustainable beef last year through a pilot program in Canada, and during the Rio Olympics in Brazil. The company has promised by the end of 2020 to source a portion of its beef from sustainable suppliers in its top 10 markets that make up more than 85% of its beef volume. The company has not indicated what portion of meat that will be.

The announcement from McDonald’s is an indicator of where the rest of the market could land. When McDonald’s vowed to serve only cage-free eggs, it set off a stampede throughout the industry with nearly 200 companies following suit. “When they move, the industry moves,” Paul Shapiro, vice president of farm animal protection for the Humane Society of the United States, told me at the time. “They have tremendous ability to do both harm and good.”

McDonald’s push into sustainable beef is indicative of the company’s broader strategy: It has focused on luring customers through promises of animal welfare improvements and environmental stewardship rather than just new menu items.

The company’s work on the issue is not without controversy, especially since there is no consistent definition of sustainable beef. Kari Hamerschlag, deputy director of the food and technology program at Friends of the Earth, told me last year that portion size is a big piece of sustainability—something McDonald’s has not addressed. “We don’t expect them to stop serving beef,” she said, “but if reduced the size, they would reduce the impact.”

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