Fleshing Out the Incredibly Vague Concept of 'Sustainable Beef'

Should “sustainable beef” mean organic? Locally sourced? Grass-fed? It’s still all up in the air, even as McDonald’s and others commit to serving such beef in the foreseeable future. Alas, the answer to the sustainable meat mystery likely won’t be that specific.

The Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, a multi-industry group that’s trying to give some shape to the term, released draft principles and criteria (PDF) this week for understanding the term. The draft will be open for public comment through May 16.

Menu buzzwords like “grass-fed” and “antibiotic-free” beef are not mentioned. Instead, the draft breaks down the sprawling concept into 36 loosely defined criteria, organized under five basic principles: natural resources; people and the community; animal health and welfare; food; and efficiency and innovation. Rather than supporting any specific marketing claim—for example, that beef should be “organic”—the proposal aims to broadly support “economically viable” practices to raise cattle with less impact on the environment and more respect for both animals and workers.

Yet some of the criteria, like maintaining animal health and paying workers the minimum wage, seem more like a minimal expectation than an aspiration. “It should not be read as a document identifying things not currently being addressed per se but as a document covering the key principles for global sustainable beef,” said Cameron Bruett, chief sustainability officer for beef producer JBS and president of the roundtable, in an e-mail. “Some issues will of course already have been adequately addressed by the supply chain currently, but that does not make those issues any less relevant.”

To ensure “sustainable beef” is a meaningful designation, it will be critical to come up with standards that are measurable and can be regulated at the local and regional level, says Heidi Carroll, a South Dakota State University livestock stewardship extension associate. “It will be complicated to form a universal definition.”

Here is an abbreviated summary of the draft GRSB guidelines, which the group says are intended to provide a standard understanding, and not the basis for a certification program. Again, these are still broad ideas and whether they result in any positive change in the beef industry will depend on implementation.

Natural Resources
- Minimize negative impacts on air quality, deforestation, greenhouse gas emissions
- Use water efficiently and manage runoff
- Maintain soil quality
- Use feed from verified sustainable sources
- Maintain wildlife and plant biodiversity through appropriate grazing, production, and pest management practices
- Develop grazing, foraging, and cropping management practices that are resilient to climate change

People and the Community
- Protect human rights in accordance with United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights
- Provide a safe work environment through training and appropriate equipment
- Pay at least the legal minimum wage and promote career development
- Respect the cultural heritage and way of life of all parties throughout the value chain
- Acknowledge property rights of landowners, tenants, and communities

Animal Health and Welfare
- Provide animals with adequate feed and potable water
- Take action to address conditions like malnutrition
- Provide cattle with preventative health care to control and treat disease
- Ensure cattle are free of pain, injury, and disease
- Minimize the animals’ stress
- Maintain an environment (including stocking density, air quality, and surfaces) that is conducive to good health and minimizes discomfort
- Slaughter, transport, and handling procedures should be consistent with guidelines from the World Organization for Animal Health

- Develop third-party validation of practices carried out by all members of the production chain
- Document management systems throughout production to ensure beef quality

Efficiency and Innovation
- Use technology to improve profitability and efficiency, and respond to climate and resource changes
- Responsible use of pharmaceuticals
- Optimize energy, water, and land use
- Promote renewable energy use
- Maximize carcass utilization
- Minimize waste

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