BEEF Daily

McDonald’s Wants Industry Help In Defining Sustainable Beef


McDonald’s has vowed to serve sustainable beef by 2016, but what exactly does that mean? The Golden Arches wants the industry’s help in defining sustainable beef.

The beef industry’s largest customer, McDonald’s, has announced it will spend the next 18 months defining sustainable beef. Bob Langert, McDonald’s vice president of sustainability, spoke at the recent 2014 Cattle Industry Summer Conference in Denver, CO, where he told the crowd, “Just thinking you’re sustainable isn’t enough anymore; you’ve got to prove it.”

Gene Johnston for reports on Langert’s speech in an article entitled, “Fast-Food VP Challenges Cattle Industry.”

Here is an excerpt: “McDonald’s buys a lot of beef -- 2% of the entire world’s supply. Through its 34,000 worldwide franchise locations, it sells about half of all fast-food burgers, an average of 75/second. That’s more than Wendy’s, Burger King, Sonic, Arby’s, and Jack-in-the-Box combined. By 2016, McDonald’s intends to source and sell hamburger beef that fits the new criteria (whatever that is) and be applied worldwide.”

McDonald’s doesn’t currently have a definition for “sustainable beef,” but Langert says McDonald’s wants the beef industry to help define it.


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“It’s a comprehensive approach. Beyond that, we don’t know the definition. You will help us create it. Let’s do it before someone else does it for us. Start by measuring things. How much do you contribute to your community? How much energy have you saved in the last few years? People want to know how much you care. It’s part of the sustainable answer.”

With 69 million customers going to McDonald’s on a daily basis, the chain sells a lot of beef and has the power to be extremely influential in public perceptions about our product. Take, for example, the company’s bad reputation for making America fat; the company rebranded and revamped its menu -- offering apple slices, oatmeal, yogurt and better salad options to meet the needs of the health-conscious customer.

The beef industry certainly has a great opportunity to sit down with McDonald’s and shape the discussion about sustainability in beef production. We better make the most of this opportunity or risk others doing the defining for us. sees McDonald’s promise to serve sustainable beef in 2016 as a direct result of Chipotle’s successful campaigning for its all-natural burritos.

In an article entitled, “McDonald’s Gives Itself A Year And Half To Get Into Chipotle-Fighting Shape,” reports that McDonald’s rebranding will focus on adding more fruit and vegetable options and offering sustainable beef, a la Chipotle.

According to the article, “The goal of McDonald’s is to become a more trusted and respected brand. The McDonald’s brand — eroded over the years by service problems, dietary concerns, lack of blockbuster product launches, and recent employee-pay issues — isn’t one many consumers feel too good about anymore. In fact, one study shows that 38% of online conversations about McDonald’s over the past year have been negative.

“To create a dining experience customers will feel good about, McDonald’s has turned a West Coast restaurant into a learning lab to gather feedback about the food, environment, and other aspects of dining at the Golden Arches. Core products, such as the Big Mac, Egg McMuffin, and fries—three items that account for about 40% of sales—will be at the center of the food efforts, and expect menu additions to be focused around premium beef and chicken items, breakfast food, and coffee and blended ice drinks.” 

I hope that McDonald’s doesn’t go down the path of Chipotle. It’s important our consumers know that conventionally raised beef really is sustainable. It’s also nutritious and safe.

However, if McDonald’s has certain specifications it would like beef producers to meet, I’m positive the industry will rise to the occasion to produce the beef our number-one customer demands. Hopefully, McDonald’s can then sell said beef without bashing conventionally raised beef in the process.

And that’s going to be the difference between Chipotle and McDonald’s -- one makes its money by bashing conventional agriculture while the other works to improve the industry by actually working with ranchers and not against them.

What do you think about McDonald’s promise to serve “sustainable beef?” How would you define sustainable beef? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

The opinions of Amanda Radke are not necessarily those of or the Penton Farm Progress Group.


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Discuss this Blog Entry 20

on Aug 19, 2014

This is a wake up call to all of us in the industry. While Chipotle's approach angered many with its perceived insults to our practices, they are simply driving a message through a marketing campaign that their product is "better" in a way that matches the current trend in consumer demand (healthier, happier, sustainable foods). They clearly don't care if it's offensive to their suppliers. McDonald's, seeing the same consumer shift, is now going down the same path but seems more open to working with the Cattle Industry. We must change through better consumer awareness of all the great accomplishments we make everyday as well as modifying some of our practices. I think the ranchers who can figure this out first will benefit through premiums for their product.

Jcb (not verified)
on Aug 20, 2014

A wake up call indeed! These are scary times folks, our industry is going down a road to be regulated and dictated by people who are using terms for which they have no definition. Sustainable? My definition as a producer will no doubt be very different from the people spewing this buzz word from their mouths. They have no idea what they mean when they say it and would likely give you a blank stare if asked what it means to them. Now we've got an executive saying we need to measure how much we contribute to the community and how much energy we save. This is absolutely assinine. Our family has been in the cattle business for a hundred years, I'd say we've been pretty well sustained, but why would my children want to come back to an industry that is being over regulated by liberal, animal rights activist,environmentalist agendas that have only one goal, to end meat production in this country all together. This is just the beginning of a endless stream of senseless regulation by people who have no connection to our industry. It's no wonder mid aged producers are getting out of the business, as well as older producers "cashing out." Wake up call??? Indeed! This country is going to hell in a hand basket!

Angela Kumlin (not verified)
on Aug 20, 2014

It's great that McDonalds is asking the industry for help in defining sustainable beef. Just curious if you know who exactly they are asking? Are ranchers allowed to send in thoughts? And if so, where to?

on Aug 20, 2014

Cow-calf economic sustainability means the return on assets (ROA) is competitive with alternative uses of the resources. The ROA has not been high enough to sustain the cow herd. It must be profitable!
Ranchers must have an accrual adjusted income statement to measure profitability and ROA. Its the cow-calf sectors responsibility to measure ROA and the calf price to generate the ROA required to expand the cow herd. McDonalds and other stake holders need this information.

Kirk @ THE DLX (not verified)
on Aug 20, 2014

Sorry Jim, I'm in for lunch and on a roll. I do agree with you. BUT do you want McDonalds noising through your tax records or worst yet some appointed board deciding if you meet some criteria. ROA should be DOA in this forum.

on Aug 21, 2014

McDonalds has access to all the published information on cow-calf returns. The problem is much of this data is cash returns. Leaving out depreciation and most have no compensation to owner labor and management. These are major costs after feed and grazing. If ROA is calculated as I suggest you will find ROA is very low and is one of the reason there is a long tern decline in the cow-calf sector. All stakeholders need to be informed about this reality when addressing the economic component of sustainability.

Kirk @ THE DLX (not verified)
on Aug 20, 2014

Well well its nice to see that after six or eight months on the sustainability roller coaster that McDonalds can't define it. Maybe Bob Langert would be sleeping better if he came to the cattle industry first. Remember were cowboy we can figure anything out. Lov'n it.

Burke (not verified)
on Aug 20, 2014

I hope, hope and hope that the definition will somewhat resemble "sustainability" or the ability to endure or stay in business. It must refer to ecological and economic sustainability or all of the social agenda will mean nothing. Yes, we ranchers need to learn more about healing the land, reducing the use of fuel and iron based inputs and making a profit. Our customers need to see that we care and that we are competent.

Jc817 (not verified)
on Aug 20, 2014

I believe sustainability infers more than just economics and ROA - It will be interesting to see how this develops. I applaud McD for starting the conversation. I didn't realize they represent 2% of the beef supply!

on Aug 20, 2014

An answer by someone that does not measure their ROA. ROA is dimension of sustainability that can be measured. Other components need measuring criteria.

W. E. (not verified)
on Aug 20, 2014

Every farm is local, and every aspect of sustainability must be addressed farm by farm, ranch by ranch, according to the soils, climate and economy in that particular place. Global marketing can't readily address such local problems. For us, on our smaller family farm in the upper South, the words "industry" and "sustainable" have been mutually exclusive. For decades, exporting our calves to feedlots a thousand miles away usually meant exporting our profits. About fifteen years ago, we decided that the only profitable alternative was to keep our steers on the farm, raising beef the way local consumers wanted us to raise it, on well-managed pasture without any expensive and unnecessary added inputs, hormones, steroids or antibiotics, and marketing the beef directly to local families. The manure of those calves now enriches our pasture and crop land throughout their lives instead of become a waste problem somewhere else. Unfortunately, in our area, we see very little agriculture that is truly sustainable. Far too many livestock producers needed jobs off the farm to reliably make a living every year. With little time and attention to devote to their pastures and cattley, some routinely overgrazed their pastures instead of managing them, letting noxious weeds overrun more desirable grasses and legumes. Far too many of them gave up, sold off their cows and leased their rolling pastures out to row-crop farmers who sprayed them down and planted them in the days of $8 corn and $14 soybeans. The crop farmers convinced the livestock farmers to take out all the fences and shade to make way for ever larger planters, spray rigs and combines. Getting back into cattle would be too expensive now, so far too many farms that once raised livestock on pasture now mine their soil instead of building it back using animal agriculture. Droughts and floods, gullies and washouts have scarred field after field in recent years. Big irrigation rigs stretch out over vast expanses of virtually impermeable clay loam soils that have too little organic matter for good tilth and water penetration. Very few fields are planted to cover crops that offer winter protection from heavy rains or snows. All of the fertility must be imported at great expense, and all of the grain is exported to other places, with the farm's land sustaining only what grows for one season--in a good year. How will McDonald's address such localized unsustainable management when its focus is on global profits?

Kirk @ THE DLX (not verified)
on Aug 20, 2014

Whoa there NellyBelle, we need to define sustainability for the future of the cattle industry. Its not time to burn it at the stake, and sucker punch every producer. This is about moving forward. Sustainability is like beauty, its in the eye of the beholder. Yes its localized, and regional and that is why we as producers need to be the ones that define what it is. Of course its about profits. But we are the ones that are in the cross hairs today. Lets make sure that the cattle industry is the one to pull the trigger and hit the bulls-eye.

W. E. (not verified)
on Aug 20, 2014

Sorry, but if sustainability were really in the eye of the beholder, then McDonald's wouldn't be asking for input. This is a corporation looking for a perception of sustainability, not its reality. Our cattle most likely won't ever sell to McDonald's. No sucker punches intended. We just had to stop being suckers or give up raising cattle. We had to find a way out of the beef industry before it sucked our farm right out of our ownership. For several decades our farm produced cattle for the national and global beef industry, a beast that could not be satisfied. Nowadays, we are cattle AND beef producers with a product we raise for the benefit of our local community as well as to sustain the fertility and economic viability of our family farm. Look at the March 2013 TED talk by Allan Savory if you want to see the perspective on grazing and sustainability that changed our paradigm. It has been viewed 2.6 million times. We started listening to Savory's ideas in 1989.

Jim Sharp (not verified)
on Dec 4, 2014

Well said!

Shar (not verified)
on Aug 20, 2014

It is great that McDonalds is asking for input. Some would just hire a company with no ag experience to decide what is sustainable. Aside from profit, my question when someone askes if I have a "sustainable" operation is - What EXACTLY would I do differently as soon as I step out the door that would mean I do or do not have a sustainable ranch?

on Aug 20, 2014

Obviously McDonalds is worried about their shrinking profit margin and are going down the path of Advertising that their beef is sustainable.

Apparently they are ignoring the real reason profits are shinking:
1) Cutting back on preparation costs (not toasting buns fresh, microwaving cold food, shrinking the size of the regular burger, degadation of quality control, etc.). Basically their food isn't nearly as good as it was 20 years ago.

2) Poorly trained workers.

3) Increased Competition

I used to work for them as a kid and it is sad to see how they have slipped.

doodlebug630 (not verified)
on Aug 20, 2014

Mr. Tedman I have to assume that you have not been behind the counter of a McDonald's restaurant since working there seeing as a number of your statements are significantly off base.

1) Buns are still toasted for each order, orders are never microwaved, the 10:1 patty has been the staple of the "regular" burger since inception, and quality control is actually quite tight.

2) As for poorly trained workers I must say that that is an epidemic throughout the service industry not just McDonald's unfortunately and truly depends on each individual owner/operator so making a blanket statement is about as fair and accurate as saying all ranchers treat their livestock poorly.

3) Indeed there is increased competition but just as producers are struggling to carve out their own niche in the market McDonald's is to and as the world's largest purchaser of beef perhaps we should be looking for opportunities to help one another instead of calling each other out.

I used to work for them as a kid too. My kids want to work there as well. I learned a ton there and loved the experience. I hope they get hired.

on Aug 27, 2014

Mr. Doodle,

No they are no longer toasted fresh. My nephew worked there recently and the buns come in looking toasted. It does not taste the same way.

As far as the regulars are concerned, I recently purchased a cheese burger and the meat was overwhelmed by the bun. The burgers have gotten smaller or the meat they are buying has more fat and what is left is a shriveled quarter.

on Aug 20, 2014

This sounds like the discussions I had with liberal college professors, about the need for holistic (sustainable) agriculture. They never had an answer for questions like: 1. Can you show me how the farmer/rancher is going to going make a profit in holistic (sustainable) agriculture (I never could make it show a profit on paper)? 2. How many people are you willing to allow to starve to death, to reach the sustainable level? 3. Which group of people are you going to deny food, as production levels drop? (etc.) Oh yes, I almost forgot, farmers and ranchers work for fun, not for profit.

on Aug 22, 2014

Is McDonald's a sustainable method for bringing food protein to people or would the world be better with local restaurants selling food to people with local owners and community involvement, not corporate marketing campaigns. Large feedlots, and McDonald's share a lot of the same characteristics in business models, with I would say McDonald's a lot further out on the less than ideal model for benefiting a "holistic" view of a sustainable community function.

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BEEF Daily Blog is produced by rancher Amanda Radke, one of the U.S. beef industry’s top social media “agvocates.”


Amanda Radke

Amanda Radke is a fifth generation rancher from Mitchell, S.D., who has dedicated her career to serving as a voice for the nation’s beef producers. A 2009 graduate of South Dakota State...

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