McDonald's Promises Sustainable Beef—and No One Knows What That Is

Photograph by Matthew Staver/The New York Times via Redux

McDonald’s is used to getting all kinds of grief about the quality of its food, especially its meat. Never mind pink slime, the company’s website includes answers such existential questions as: Is your meat real or fake? If your meat is of such high quality, why is it so cheap? What animal is the McRib made of? Why is the Filet-O-Fish square?

Fast-food competitors, meanwhile, have been busy boasting about their high-quality meat: Five Guys promises it only uses fresh beef, for example, and Chipotle makes much of using naturally raised beef. Now McDonald’s, the biggest buyer of beef in the U.S., vows that it will slowly begin purchasing verified-sustainable beef in 2016, with the goal of eventually buying all its beef from sustainable sources.

This is an ambitious goal for lots of reasons, not least of which is the absence of any standard for just what makes beef—a very resource-intensive protein—sustainable. McDonald’s is working with beef suppliers, companies such as Wal-Mart, and environmental organizations to come up with a definition.

Bob Langert, McDonald’s vice president for global sustainability, told, which first reported the news, that the burger chain isn’t yet ready to commit to a specific amount of sustainable beef it would purchase in 2016; he declined to elaborate on when the company might achieve its “aspirational goal” of buying 100 percent of its beef from verified-sustainable sources. The environment website speculates that it could take a decade or more, and the route from cattle farm to Big Mac is a long one. Ranchers, suppliers, slaughter houses, and patty makers work independently of one another and vary greatly in size and resources.

Sustainably produced or not, a Big Mac will still have 550 calories (PDF) and about half a day’s recommended value of fat.

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