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Sustainable Beef Production Means the Three E's for McDonald's

18 March 2014

The scope of the McDonald's sustainability movement will operate along the three E's approach, according to Warren Rusche, Beef Specialist at South Dakota State.

One of the forces on the horizon that will play a role in how well the industry can sustain higher prices is our ability to tell our story to consumers in an environment where they are being bombarded with messages designed to persuade them to reduce animal protein purchases, writes Warren Rusche.

Warren Rusche: Cow/Calf Field Specialist

Consumers are further and further removed from food production while at the same time asking for more information about how the food they are buying is produced, writes Mr Rusche.

Whether producers are ready or not, providing consumers with more information and documenting what we do will become part of the job description for farmers and ranchers.

That point was made clear at the recent Cattle Industry Convention and Trade Show in a presentation by Mr. Bob Langert, vice president of corporate sustainability for McDonald’s. McDonald’s has stated that they plan to begin purchasing verified sustainable beef in 2016.

When one of the largest single purchasers of beef in the United States announces that they intend to change the way they do business, that’s a good indication that business as usual is changing. What “sustainability” means, at least to McDonald’s is yet to be announced.

Mr. Langert did state that part of the process of defining sustainability will rely on input from ranchers and processors.

He also described McDonald’s vision of sustainability as three “E’s”: ethics, environment, and economics.

What does all this mean for beef producers? When producers hear the word “sustainability,” the first reaction tends to be that we must change our production practices to meet someone else’s ideal of how to raise cattle and produce beef.

According to Mr. Langert, based on what he has observed that may not be the greatest change that needs to occur.

In his opinion, the primary challenges will be in defining and measuring how sustainable beef production is currently.

"The first reaction tends to be that we must change our production practices to meet someone else’s ideal of how to raise cattle and produce beef."

It’s tempting to dismiss this talk of sustainability as a short-term trend that won’t last. Perhaps, but the indications are that the beef industry ignores this discussion at its own peril. If these questions aren’t effectively answered it would be all too easy for consumers to direct their food dollars elsewhere.

If farmers and ranchers aren’t at the table when sustainability is defined, those definitions are much more likely to be written by groups that aren’t committed to the long-term survival of cattle and livestock production.

Farmers and ranchers are an independent lot by nature and tend to be more comfortable talking amongst themselves rather than engaging the general public, especially when it comes to explaining production practices.

However, this move by McDonald’s may well mean that knowing how to communicate effectively with consumers will be just as important to success as is knowledge of nutrition, animal health, and business management. 

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