Guenther: McDonald’s sustainability goals to reach beyond beef

Farmers who want to keep supplying the world’s biggest quick-service restaurant chains can expect more scrutiny of their methods going forward.

That’s because the chains’ customers appear to be looking for more sustainably-produced food — so companies such as McDonald’s in turn are looking for third-party verification to prove the ingredients they source make the cut.

Farmers won’t have to become verified as sustainable producers if they don’t want to, Jeffrey Fitzpatrick-Stilwell told delegates last Thursday at the Canola Council of Canada’s convention in Banff

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Avoiding the verification process, however, could be risky business.

“Our commitment is to eventually source everything from verified, sustainable sources. So eventually, to be able to sell to big customers, that is going to be a requirement, at some point down the road,” said Fitzpatrick-Stilwell, senior manager of sustainability at McDonald’s Canada.

McDonald’s has been working with the Canadian beef industry on a pilot project to outline what sustainable beef production looks like. The fast-food titan, which is the largest buyer of Canadian beef, has promised customers it will begin buying beef that’s been verified sustainable by 2016.

And McDonald’s doesn’t plan to stop at beef. “We can’t look at it as commodity-specific. It has to be a system,” Fitzpatrick-Stilwell told his audience of canola growers, processors and marketers.

Fitzpatrick-Stilwell was careful to emphasize McDonald’s wants to collaborate with industry, rather than drive farmers into another certification scheme. There has been an “eruption” of sustainability certifications in all sectors to try to meet the needs of consumers, he said.

“And if you were trying to respond to all of them, it would be impossible. And that is, again, why we’re not ever going to create a McDonald’s standard for something.”

Instead, the quick-service giant wants to help define an industry standard so farmers can sell to various large food companies once they’re verified, he explained. The company will be looking to the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Crops, which is developing ways to measure sustainable crop production, for cues for its pilot project.

Fitzpatrick-Stilwell told canola growers they were already growing crops sustainably.

“So it’s not bringing in a bunch more stuff that some yahoo from Toronto thinks that we should do to be sustainable growers. It’s finding out what you’re already doing and hopefully helping to tell that story.”

Asked by a delegate how McDonald’s would work its sustainability initiative into its brand to entice more millennials in the door, Fitzpatrick-Stilwell said the corporation viewed sustainability in a “pre-competitive” sense.

“So I don’t want McDonald’s to have sustainable beef and Wendy’s not to have sustainable beef. I want us all to have sustainable beef.”

“Great story”

McDonald’s hopes to get its “bounce” from demonstrating a leadership role as they invest in pilot projects that benefit the entire industry, he explained.

McDonald’s has a direct connection with 2.5 million customers every day in Canada, he said, and 70 million globally. McDonald’s hopes to “use the channels we have to tell the positive stories. And Cargill does a great job of making sure I’m aware of the sustainable story around canola.”

McDonald’s and Cargill have a working relationship that has spanned 20 years. Last year Cargill developed a high-oleic canola oil for McDonald’s, Fitzpatrick-Stilwell told delegates.

“It met all of our needs, all of our functions, everything that we needed it to. And they did it with 20 per cent fewer acres. So that’s innovation, that’s sustainability. That’s a great story.”

Fitzpatrick-Stilwell has a seat at both the beef and crop roundtables, and he sees his role, in part, to bridge both sectors. He also urged canola producers to join the roundtable, telling delegates that if they aren’t members of the crops roundtable, it’s a “miss.”

Everyone in the value chain has something to contribute, Fitzpatrick-Stilwell said. “But producers are the only people, in my opinion, who have a monopoly on the truth.”

Lisa Guenther is a field editor for Grainews based at Livelong, Sask. Follow her @LtoG on Twitter.

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