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Serving up sustainable beef at McDonald's

Troy Media

EDMONTON, Alta. / Troy Media/ - When the largest purchaser of Canadian beef says it's going to begin obtaining a portion of its supply from sustainable sources, the whole industry takes notice.

Sustainability is important not only to McDonald's Restaurants but to all food retailers, who are moving fast to respond to changing public values around health, the environment and animal welfare. But McDonald's has led the pack with its Verified Sustainable Beef (VSB) Canadian pilot program, which actually gets into the nuts and bolts of beef production.

Since early 2014, McDonald's has worked with producers, stock growers, feedlots, packers and all of us at the Beef InfoXchange System (BIXS) to find a consistent way to track "sustainability indicators"  like animal health and welfare, efficient feeding and management practices, innovation, and land management.

McDonald's announced the results of its pilot in early June. The results included these standout statistics: nearly 200 producers participated in the pilot, allowing BIXS to track the chain of custody of some 9,000 head of Canadian cattle - the equivalent of 2.4 million patties sold at McDonald's in Canada over the last two years.

The pilot was a true collaboration across the entire supply chain - no simple feat in an industry known for its fierce individualism.

And it couldn't have come too soon. Just a few weeks after the fiasco over the beef-purchasing plans of Earls Kitchen and Bar, the VSB pilot has helped the Canadian beef industry take a giant leap forward in verifying sustainable practices. We're now measurably closer to a national framework for sustainable beef production - which seemed a distant dream a short time ago.

The work of the McDonald's pilot, along with BIXS, the Verified Beef Production Plus program from the Canadian Cattlemen's Association, and the Canadian Cattle Identification Agency is allowing us to measure, verify and track chain of custody in ways that no other country can. Some of us even see a day when sustainability is so ingrained that the term "sustainable beef" becomes redundant.

Jeffrey Fitzpatrick-Stilwell, McDonald's senior manager of sustainability, stresses how the pilot proved the value of information sharing. "McDonald's wants to trace the chain of custody from birth to burger. That's important to us and our consumers. However, we also want to return real value back to producers, such as carcass data. This flow of data up and down the value chain is really critical, and valuable to everyone who participates," he says. "What the pilot has shown is that the more data producers and others put into BIXS, the more they're going to get back."

One of the major reasons that McDonald's chose to pilot the program in Canada was the strength of BIXS. And by participating in the pilot, BIXS has become even more robust - allowing us to meet or exceed every timeline and commitment asked of us. "BIXS has been able to track information, while still maintaining user privacy, in ways that have gone well beyond the original design," says Fitzpatrick-Stilwell.

One more important point: during the pilot celebration, Cargill Canada said that for the first time in the last five years its beef sales to McDonald's have gone up. It attributes the increase to McDonald's "Not Without Canadian Farmers" promotion. The increase indicates that Canadian consumers want to buy our beef, but they also want to know what they're eating. By giving them what they want through verification, we have a big chance to grow the industry at home and abroad.

Now that the pilot is complete, what's the bottom line for producers? It's time to get in the game. Producers who are engaged in the verification process are going to have the strongest voices, and the best opportunity for improving their businesses and the industry as a whole.

As Fitzpatrick-Stilwell puts it: "BIXS was created with the intention that the entire supply chain would see value in participating. Although that didn't happen in the early days, it is definitely happening now and we're very pleased by that."

So what are you waiting for? Sign up with BIXS and be on the front lines of Canadian sustainable beef production. Signing up is easy and free. But unlocking the value of data and reflecting the pride of the industry is beyond measure.

Deborah Wilson is senior vice-president at BIXSco, the data-sharing partner in McDonald's VSB pilot. McDonald's longer-term goal is to source all of its beef sustainably through Canadian producers.