McDonald’s Canada will reach its goal of selling “verified sustainable” beef next year, says the company’s senior manager of sustainability.
“We’re right on track as far as we know — it’s hard to know how many producers we’ll be able to get interested and get through, but we’ve got some pretty good numbers now,” said Jeffrey Fitzpatrick-Stilwell.
As of last month, 147 operations had signed up for the verification process, and 35 will complete it by the end of this month. The lion’s share — 105 — are from Alberta, and while most are cow-calf producers, there are also feeders, the two big slaughter plants (Cargill’s operation at High River and the JBS plant at Brooks), and McDonald’s burger patty facility at Spruce Grove.
The goal is to have 300 operations verified by April when the McDonald’s pilot ends and the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef takes over the verification process.
“This is the Canadian roundtable’s to own,” said Fitzpatrick-Stilwell. “McDonald’s is not creating a McDonald’s standard. McDonald’s commitment is to source verified sustainable beef as defined by the Canadian roundtable.”
How that handover will work is still being decided, said Cherie Copithorne-Barnes, who has chaired the roundtable since it was established in early 2014 by the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association and other industry stakeholders.
And while the roundtable will build on the McDonald’s pilot, it is a separate initiative and will chart its own course, she said.
“From our perspective, the fundamental question is that we have to see if this is a viable concept and how it will fit in,” said Copithorne-Barnes, who operates CL Ranches just west of Calgary.
“We have to ensure that we set it up in a way that our entire industry can handle. It’s not going to happen with McDonald’s paying for every step of it.
“So we’ve got to build this slowly and carefully and ensure that we’re not limiting any areas at the same time. It’s a delicate dance right now, so we will see how we can move forward without too many hiccups.”
Who will pay for the verification process once the McDonald’s pilot is finished is also up in the air, but the goal is to have “something in place that will be there on an ongoing basis,” said Fitzpatrick-Stilwell.
McDonald’s is sharing everything it has learned and will do all it can to “ensure that we’re setting up the roundtable for success,” he said.
“We’re not going anywhere,” he said.
While McDonald’s has been the driving force behind the initiative, other retailers — such as Loblaw and Walmart — also want a process that verifies Canadian producers are good stewards of their land, care for their animals, and produce safe, wholesome food. Loblaw and McDonald’s both have representatives on the roundtable’s 14-member council, which is composed of beef industry players, retailers, packers, and the World Wildlife Fund.
The McDonald’s pilot has given the group a clear idea of what a verification process involves and costs, but “there are a whole bunch of different questions that we really have to look at now,” said Copithorne-Barnes.
“We’re trying to make sure everything that is being demanded of the beef industry by the retail and food-service side are things that we can handle en masse, that will produce a positive impact and positive changes at the speed and at a rate that the industry can handle. That’s the real trick.”
One of the most challenging areas has been settling on the precise criteria — which are called indicators — used to assess an operation.
McDonald’s only made its indicators public at the end of last month (see accompanying story on page 12) because the process took a long time and the criteria were constantly evolving.
“The consultants counted out that there were 150 different versions of the indicator sets,” said Fitzpatrick-Stilwell. “There was a lot of work that went on, all positive, because it was based on the feedback we were getting from the stakeholders and everybody along the value chain, and from doing the actual verifications and getting feedback from those producers who went through them.”
McDonald’s won’t be making any additional changes, but the roundtable has developed its own set of indicators. They were given to roundtable members at the organization’s annual general meeting in Saskatoon on Sept. 30. They have two weeks to comment on them and then the indicators will be made public for a further 60 days of comment.
Also up for consideration is who will conduct the verifications. McDonald’s hired an American organization, Where Food Comes From, and has upped the number of verifiers to three (from one) in order to complete all of the verifications by April. The roundtable is also considering a sustainability assessment on the Canadian beef sector conducted by Deloitte and how it fits in with the indicators.
But the biggest question is how the organization can take over the process from McDonald’s.
“We’re putting this question to the membership and really allowing the membership to be part of this discussion,” said Copithorne-Barnes. “Now that we know what it takes to perform these functions and do a verification project, we have to figure out how and to what degree we’re going to move forward with it.
“We’re still getting our heads wrapped around what this verification can and should look like and how producers are responding to the McDonald’s pilot project.”