Fast-Food VP Challenges Cattle Industry

Exactly what does it to mean to be a sustainable cattle ranch? As an industry that is as old as civilization, aren’t we already there? The next two years will attempt to bring answers to those questions due to an initiative from the beef industry’s single biggest customer: McDonald’s.

Bob Langert, the vice president of sustainability for the fast-food giant, told a packed convention hall at the National Cattle Industry Convention to expect changes in the way McDonald’s buys hamburger. It buys a lot of it: 2% of the entire world’s supply. Through its 34,000 worldwide franchise locations, it sells about half of all fast-food burgers, an average of 75 per second. That’s more than Wendy’s, Burger King, Sonic, Arby’s, and Jack-in-the-Box combined.

Sustainable is the word this year, Langert told the beef producers. McDonald’s recently determined that 28% of the carbon footprint of the entire company is related to the beef it sells. “Just thinking you’re sustainable isn’t enough anymore,” he says. “You’ve got to prove it.” 

He announced that McDonald’s, in an effort to get ahead of public pressure, is organizing a sustainable beef roundtable initiative that will engage all parts of the industry to define it in ethical, environmental, and economic viability terms. By 2016, McDonald’s intends to source and sell hamburger beef that fits the new criteria (whatever that is) and be applied worldwide.

In a question-and-answer dialogue with beef producers, Langert was asked to define sustainable beef. “It’s a comprehensive approach,” he says. “Beyond that, we don’t know the definition. You will help us create it. Let’s do it before someone else does it for us.” 

Another asked what beef producers can do to be more sustainable. “Start by measuring things,” Langert says. “How much do you contribute to your community? How much energy have you saved in the last few years? People want to know how much you care. It’s part of the sustainable answer.” Another wanted to know if consumers will be willing to pay more for the sustainable label. 

“Yes, a little now,” he says. “We think more in the future. We don’t see sustainable as just a marketing ploy or gimmick. We think it is a way to drive more business because of our commitment. That’s good for you, too. We are engaging your industry leadership in this effort, and we are committed to collaborate with you and others.

“The biggest threat to our business and any other is if we don’t listen to customers,” he says. “We have 69 million customers come into our stores every day. We need to make beef even more attractive to them. There are changes we can make in that direction; let’s work together on them.” 

As an example of change, he pointed to the milk, yogurt, oatmeal, and more you now see on McDonald’s menu. 

“I can’t believe all the things on our menu now,” Langert says. “Our strategy in the last 10 years was to get better. We found that when we did, we got bigger.”

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