By Deborah Wilson
When the largest purchaser of Canadian beef says it’s going begin sourcing a portion of its supply from sustainable sources, the whole industry rightly stands up and takes notice. Sustainability is an issue important to not only McDonald’s, 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) 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 VSB pilot in early June. A few stand out 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 in Canadian McDonald’s restaurants over the last two years.
The pilot was a true collaboration of minds across the entire supply chain—no simple feat in an industry known for its fierce individualism. And it couldn’t have come soon enough. Just a few weeks after the fiasco with Earl’s, 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 like only a distant dream a short time ago. It’s not an overstatement to say that the work of the McDonald’s VSB pilot, along with BIXS, the Verified Beef Production Plus program from the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, and the Canadian Cattle Identification Agency are allowing us to measure, verify, and track chain of custody in ways that no other country is yet able to do. Some of us can even see a day when sustainability is so ingrained in our industry that the term “sustainable beef” becomes redundant.
Jeffrey Fitzpatrick-Stilwell, McDonald’s Senior Manager of Sustainability, says that one of the key learnings to come out of the pilot is 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 due to the strength of BIXS. But by participating in the pilot BIXS has become even more robust—allowing us to meet or exceed every timeline and commitment asked of BIXS. “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 of interest: during the pilot celebration, Cargill 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 in sales 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, both at home and abroad.
Now that the pilot is complete, what’s the bottom line for producers? We cannot stop here! More than ever, 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 whole industry. 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. It’s easy, and signing up is 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.