McDonald’s pilot could usher in overdue reforms

The fast-food giant’s bid to use only ‘sustainable beef’ may finally
 force the industry to share data and work together

Did A&W’s “better beef” campaign pop into your head when you read the front-page story on McDonald’s picking Canada for its first-ever “sustainable beef” pilot?

Did you think, ‘Oh goodie, more paperwork.’

And, of course, you must have noted McDonald’s is not offering premiums for this program. That’s a point made repeatedly by senior company officials in a very well-researched (and very lengthy) article at greenbiz.com on the sustainable beef initiative.

So more hoops for producers to jump through and no extra money. It’s the same old story, right?

But there just might be something very different going on here.

In the same greenbiz.com story, McDonald’s officials also repeatedly insist that producers who participate in its program will be able to boost their profitability.

That’s likely why the company sent a link to the article to members of the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef a couple of months back.

My first thought was this is crazy talk. Doing extra stuff takes time and costs money, so sustainable beef will be more expensive to produce.

But my second thought was McDonald’s and its corporate partners in the global sustainable beef initiative — JBS, Cargill, and Walmart — know a thing or two about finding efficiencies. And they do it by recording and tracking everything, and then mining that vast pool of data to find a better way.

Details on McDonald’s sustainable beef pilot are scarce, but the idea seems to be to take the newly relaunched Beef InfoXchange System (BIXS 2.0) and add data from an enhanced Verified Beef Production program. VBP’s website states that in addition to adding modules on animal care, environmental stewardship, and biosecurity, it will also be incorporating “existing materials” from the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef.

There’s not much in the way of existing materials at this point, just guiding principles. Environmental protection and animal health and welfare are two of them, but so is efficiency and innovation.

It’s pretty easy to see how efficiency and innovation figures into the original concept for BIXS — by sending back carcass data to producers, they could get some idea of how well their breeding, feeding, and other management programs are working.

But how might that work for something such as animal welfare?

Well, imagine this new enhanced BIXS — let’s call it 3.0 — had transport data loaded in. Want to bet that some smart cookie couldn’t find a way to use that data to figure out which trucking companies do a better job of reducing stress during transport and therefore minimize shrink? Wouldn’t you like to know that?

Actually, most producers would just like to know the basics and get carcass data back. It’s a complaint that comes up over and over again in the recently released straw man followup report conducted by Toma and Bouma. The duo conducted in-depth interviews of more than three dozen industry leaders and experts. (It, along with an FCC survey of cattle producers, is available at www.strawmanbeef.ca.)

Not surprisingly, there were a lot of comments about the “high level of mistrust” between the feedlot and producer sectors. Many pointed to the unwillingness of the feedlot sector to share carcass data with the producers as the symbol of a fractured system.

Well, that’s going to change in a hurry if the McDonald’s pilot goes ahead as envisioned. In order for it to work, there has to be a system-wide sharing of data. And once it’s out there, that big pool of detailed data will be mined — whether it’s to evaluate the performance of a trucking company, or a feedlot, backgrounder, or cow-calf operation.

How this will play out is still an unknown.

Obviously McDonald’s is keen to placate consumers who fret that beef production is bad for the planet or uses poor animal welfare practices.

It’s a radical — albeit entirely unproven — concept that beef sustainability could lead to greater efficiencies and improved profitability for the entire industry.

But wouldn’t it be a kicker if an effort to placate consumers ended up doing that?

About the author

Editor

Glenn Cheater

Glenn Cheater is a veteran journalist who has covered agriculture for more than two decades. His mission is to showcase the ideas, passions, and stories of Alberta farmers and ranchers.

Comments

explore

Stories from our other publications