McDonald's Will Begin Purchasing "Verified Sustainable Beef"...Whatever That Means

The fast food giant has made a promise to the world: by 2016, McDonald's will begin purchasing "verified sustainable beef." Good news? Well, it's hard to say since "sustainable beef" isn't an official term and so no one knows how exactly it could be "verified" that McDonald's was actually buying it. McDonald's freely admits the term has no meaning as of yet, but they imply that they hope to develop such a definition in conjunction with partners such as The World Wildlife Fund and Cargill, two organizations that elicit very different opinions from environmentalists. Whether or not that's what's actually going on, I can't be the only person uncomfortable with the idea of McDonald's defining environmental terms.

According to McDonald's website, they've set this goal of purchasing "sustainable beef" (whatever it may actually be) with an eye to "improve environmental practices in the way beef is produced, support positive workplaces in the beef industry, and drive continuous improvement in animal health and welfare." All of which sounds great, if in fact they actually do it and don't just define sustainable beef as whatever it is they're already buying. Though given their recent labor-related PR gaffes, that might be giving their public relations people too much credit. Which of course begs the question whether this move is meant to distract from their tone deaf dealings with employees.

Overall, sustainable beef is an important idea, if we ever actually iron out the details of what it might be. Factory farmed beef is pretty awful when considered by almost any rubric that isn't financial. In fact, the Sierra Club recently named factory farmed beef as one of five foods that are killing the planet. But even grass fed beef isn't perfect, since raising cattle can have major negative impacts on the natural environment and still involves plenty of hormone-laced feed. So if McDonald's starts switching to a new model, that could be a huge shift in the industry. After all, McDonald's purchases about 800 million pounds of beef every year, just for its U.S. stores.

Unfortunately, it's somewhat unlikely that McDonald's, as an entrenched corporation with no history of major environmental projects or interests, would really voluntarily make such a major change — a change so major that they'd have to invent a new category just to do it. Still, who knows. Maybe sustainable McDonald's beef really will happen, and not just in name. If it does, it could be huge — if for no other reason than I might actually eat at McDonald's again.

Image: Wikipedia Commons