McDonald’s decision to pilot its “sustainable beef” project in Canada, could lead to a sea change in the country’s beef industry, according to two members of the Straw Man task force.
The task force was struck after a think-tank slammed the beef industry for being fractured, unable to develop a true Canada brand, and choosing to be reliant on the U.S. instead of pursuing high-value export opportunities.
The McDonald’s pilot could change all of that by requiring cattle producers, feedlots, and packers to co-operate, said Kim McConnell and John Kolk, two of the three members of the Straw Man task force.
“In my mind, it has the potential to happen whether we want it or not and if we have the potential to embrace it and work together, than that really does help bring synergy and everyone to come together,” said McConnell.
“It’s somewhat intuitive that an industry with good clear communication, information exchange, and governance that goes to all players it needs to, will be better equipped to chase opportunities than one where you have to chase around and talk to four different associations and five different industry supplier groups before you can get an answer,” added Kolk.
“A less fragmented industry does not guarantee success, but it will be better able to grasp the opportunities that stand in front of it.”
As reported in the last edition of Alberta Farmer, the McDonald’s pilot would require an extensive database, which would not only track production and carcass information but also data on environmental stewardship, animal health and welfare, and food safety.
That database would allow buyers — such as restaurant or grocery chains — to select beef on specific attributes and that, in turn, could encourage producers, feedlots, and packers to work together to supply what the market is looking for, said McConnell.
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“The whole (food) system today is being consumer pulled, rather than supply pushed,” he said. “But this whole initiative is a good example of that because the consumer is telling McDonald’s and McDonald’s is telling the industry.”
A greater level of co-operation between sectors and a detailed information-sharing system were key recommendations of both the Straw Man task force and the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute, which issued the highly critical report in 2012. That report accused the beef sector of falling behind its competitors, failing to grasp opportunities to grow the industry, and not doing enough to meet consumer expectations.
It is expected this information-sharing system will be based on the recently relaunched BIXS (Beef InfoXchange System) that will be expanded to include data from the Verified Beef Production program.
“In order for McDonald’s to do what they are after and the producers to accomplish this, we need a strong, robust, information system,” said McConnell.
The McDonald’s pilot still hasn’t been officially announced, but the company said in an email it is working with the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association to develop the sustainable beef pilot.
“At this time we do not have further details to share, but we plan on working directly with producers, feeders and packers around practical guidelines that address environmental stewardship, animal health and welfare, and food safety,” said Jeff Fitzpatrick-Stilwell, senior manager of sustainability for McDonald’s Canada.
And while there is no definition of sustainable beef, the company has pledged it won’t be imposing new rules on beef production, but rather seeking ways to verify that current practices in Canada are sustainable when it comes to things such as the environment and animal welfare.
“I think that Canada already has a lot of things that they’re looking for,” said Kolk. “The fact that they picked us tells us already that they felt the chances of success were higher working with the Canadian industry than some of the other choices they had.”
“We have an exceptional beef product. In most cases, we’re doing all the right things,” added McConnell.
The McDonald’s pilot can not only bring the various sectors within the beef industry together, but also show them that co-operation is good for the bottom line, said Kolk.
“It’s no surprise that they’re going now this road — we see Walmart doing it, we see petroleum companies doing it, we see all kinds of companies doing it,” he said.
“Whoever gets to work with these companies to set the metrics, the measurements, and the criteria has a better chance of being able to satisfy the customer over time. I’m of the opinion that he who sets the metrics will garner the profits. The chance that we have in Alberta and with the Canadian beef industry is that McDonald’s has committed to working with industry to figure this out.”
McDonald’s has promised to start using some sustainable beef by 2016.