McDonald’s has chosen Canada over Australia and Europe as the site of its first pilot project in its ambitious quest to serve only “sustainable beef” in its massive global restaurant empire, Alberta Farmer has learned.
The exact terms of the pilot — or even a definition of sustainable — have yet to be finalized, but the fast-food giant has the backing of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, and it’s working with the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (CRSB), an organization the CCA founded last year.
“It is still in the preliminary stages, so there are a lot of details to be worked out, but everyone is on the same page,” said Ponoka seed stock producer Greg Bowie, who is chair of Alberta Beef Producers and a CRSB member.
“They’re working with industry to come up with something that is sustainable long term, for the entire industry.”
Bowie and others are quick to say that McDonald’s, the largest buyer of Canadian beef, has steadfastly pledged it won’t impose rules on how to raise cattle. Instead, it has promised to work with producers, feeders and packers to create practical guidelines on environmental stewardship, animal health and welfare, and food safety — a process that will likely stretch into next year.
“A lot of these things are going to be things that producers are doing anyhow,” said Bowie. “They’re just going to come up with a means of proving that the producer is doing it.”
The pilot project could have major benefits for Canada because it is the first partner to be selected by McDonald’s, which grabbed the attention of the global beef industry six months ago by announcing it would begin sourcing verified sustainable beef in 2016.
“Whether that’s from Canada, or from anywhere else, they will start buying verified sustainable beef, whatever the definition is,” said Pine Lake cow-calf producer Doug Sawyer, a CCA director and past chair of Alberta Beef Producers.
“What we have to do now is put a definition to this and do it. We’re poised in Canada to capitalize on this.”
Jeffrey Fitzpatrick-Stilwell, manager of sustainability with McDonald’s Canada, declined an interview request. But a company email sent to CRSB members in March stated it “has secured support from the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association for a global McDonald’s project to take place in Canada.”
While most producers may not have to change their production practices, they will have to provide a lot more information about what they do — and the foundation of the new system will be a highly detailed database able to track a host of information on millions of head of cattle.
“One of the advantages to Canada over other countries is that we have our traceability system, we have BIXS 2.0 coming out, and we’ve got a very good environmental system put together,” said Sawyer. “We’ve got our new animal welfare codes of practice. We’ve got almost all the pieces there.”
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Senior officials from McDonald’s headquarters and its Canadian arm toured Alberta last summer and returned again in mid-May, visiting the JBS and Cargill slaughter plants, the company’s hamburger production facility in Spruce Grove, and cattle operations. CL Ranch near Calgary, one of the province’s oldest and most prominent cattle operations, hosted both tours and the first one resulted in CEO Cherie Copithorne-Barnes being asked to head the CRSB.
She also said it’s too early to talk about specifics.
“Even McDonald’s to this point can’t define clearly enough what they are asking for,” she said. “Even though there’s a timeline when they want to get this project started, they want to make sure all the steps are in place and it’s done correctly.”
One of those steps involves changes to the Verified Beef Production program. Program officials announced earlier this year that the on-farm food safety program will add modules for biosecurity, animal care, and environmental stewardship.
“What we’re looking at now, while we’re redoing BIXS 2.0 and the Verified Beef Production, we’re going to have to add some layers in there on the environmental side and work the codes of practice into it,” added Sawyer.
The Canadian pilot is also waiting for the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef to issue a set of principles that will guide development of specific protocols. That group was set up two years ago when McDonald’s, Cargill, JBS, Merck Animal Health, and Walmart partnered with environmental organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund to address beef production issues involving soil and water quality, energy use, animal welfare, and nutrition. It will put forward principles for sustainable beef following a meeting in Brazil in November.
Both the rules for sustainable beef and the verification process have to be practical, said Copithorne-Barnes, adding she emphasized that again during the most recent visit by McDonald’s officials.
“The whole point is to understand and recognize that we don’t have time to add on a bunch of layers to what we already do,” she said. “Our No. 1 priority has to be the welfare of these cattle. And they saw that. They got that.”
They also got a good look at real-life ranching, she said.
“We’re almost done calving here, but we had just come through 12 inches of snow the weekend before, so things aren’t quite looking beautiful here,” she said.
“You can see the mud and you can see the cattle are kind of sad looking because the weather has been so horrible. The whole point of that was to show them that life around here isn’t always green grass, rolling hills and everybody’s always happy.”
Bowie said he is confident everyone working on the pilot “wants to make sure it’s done right.”
“They’re going to take a little bit of time to develop each step, make sure it’s correct, and talk to all of the parties involved,” he said.
Canada is a logical choice, he added, because it has a pristine environment compared to other countries, and the vast majority of the 66 million pounds of Canadian beef purchased by McDonald’s is fed in Alberta, which simplifies things.
Producers who have attended the meetings feel the initiative is going in the right direction, both Bowie and Sawyer said. While McDonald’s presence at the table is important, the goal is to develop a Canadian program that all restaurants and retailers can use, said Sawyer.
“We have everybody covered,” he said the day after attending a May 13 meeting on the initiative. “Everybody who has anything to do with a McDonald’s hamburger was at that meeting yesterday.”
McDonald’s won’t be paying a premium for sustainable beef, but having the company promote awareness of “all of the good things that we do every day to make ourselves sustainable” will benefit all producers, said Sawyer.
“We can’t do that ourselves. We don’t have the budget or the money and nobody wants to listen to us. But if we can partner with our value chain — companies like McDonald’s or whoever that is — they have millions of dollars in advertising to tell our story.”
Some of that is already happening.
Alberta ranchers Dave Solverson and Bob Lowe have already been featured in McDonald’s campaigns. Lowe (who has sat on the CCA’s environment committee) is in a YouTube video entitled “Where McDonald’s Canada gets our hamburger patties from,” (watch below) which got over 90,000 hits, while CCA president Solverson and daughter Joanne were featured on tray liners.
“This is the kind of stuff we need in our industry, and the only way we can do it is to partner with the people using our products,” said Sawyer. “That’s why this is such a valuable opportunity here.”
“Any time you get an increase in consumer support and sales for your product, there’s a benefit that goes back to all levels of the industry,” he said. “Everybody will benefit if this thing is done in the right manner.”
McDonald’s will “be putting together a communications package pretty soon” to provide producers with more information, said Copithorne-Barnes.
“McDonald’s has to decide what it is that they want,” she said. “Our role in this isn’t really to say how this pilot project is going to look, because they are going to have to tell us what they need first.
“We’re waiting on that one.”