Why McDonald’s Switch to ‘Sustainable Beef’ Is All Talk, No Progress


When McDonald’s announced in January that the company would be transitioning to “verified sustainable beef” within the next two years, the declaration was met with no small amount of public skepticism. First and foremost, from an environmental and animal rights perspective, sustainable animal products are quite an oxymoron. But, beyond that, the fast food giant had not even bothered to define the term “sustainable.” As CBS News reported in January, “The fast-food chain itself is admitting that it doesn’t exactly know what ‘sustainable’ means. Not yet, at least. In announcing the decision… the company noted, ‘This sounds simple, but it’s actually a big challenge because there hasn’t been a universal definition of sustainable beef.’”

Since then, McDonald’s has partnered with the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef to generate a working definition of the term “sustainable.” It’s important to note, however, that despite its impressive name, the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (GRSB) is more of a meat industry group than an environmental organization. According to Mother Jones, the executive committee includes representatives from Elanco, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, and beef-processing company JBS USA.

No doubt due to the team members’ industry affiliations, the GRSB’s recently released principles and criteria for defining global sustainable beef are vague at best. For example, the plan does not provide details on how workplace labor standards will be monitored, who will conduct workplace audits, or what emission standards and grazing policies might look like. Nor does it contain any mention of antibiotics. (As we recently noted, 80 percent of antibiotics in America are given to animals rather than humans, which contributes to the average of two million antibiotic-resistant infections found in Americans each year.)

The GRSB says it has intentionally avoided including details and metrics that might be used to measure progress quantitatively, claiming that a global standard “would simply be ignored, and it wouldn’t lead to improvements among members.” But health professionals have noted that as written, GRSB’s policies are difficult, if not impossible, to enforce. It’s hard to not conclude that McDonald’s has deliberately found a way to claim to be sustainable without actually making any significant changes. Well, what else did we expect? As we said, large-scale sustainable beef is largely a myth, anyway.

If you’re ready to move beyond beef and swap your McDonald’s burger for a meat-free alternative, we’ve got plenty of healthful, delicious recipes for you to try! Check out our collection of 15 veggie burger recipes, made with ingredients ranging from barley to black beans to broccoli. Once you’ve exhausted that list, we’ve got plenty of other sustainable vegan burger ideas that you can easily whip up in your own kitchen. Who needs McDonald’s when you’ve got Vegan Moussaka Burgers with Bechamel Cheese Sauce?