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National Restaurant Association - Where’s the beef? What you need to know about eco-friendly burgers

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Where’s the beef? What you need to know about eco-friendly burgers

Beef sourcing and sustainability are two cutting-edge topics restaurants deal with more often these days.

Two industry experts — McDonald's Townsend Bailey and Elevation Burger's Michael Burger — weighed in on the subject during a lively discussion with the National Restaurant Association's Laura Abshire.

Bailey, McDonald's director of supply chain sustainability, and Berger, Elevation Franchise Ventures' founding partner and VP of supply chain, shared their knowledge on the issue. McDonald's has more than 36,000 restaurants worldwide and Elevation has 60 restaurants serving burgers made with organic, grass-fed beef.

The session, Where’s The Beef: Eco-Protein Trends Explained, was held during the 2016 NRA Show in May. Here are some excerpts:


Why is environmental sustainability important to your companies?

McDonald’s: We care about the environment and about the animals and people in our supply chain. We know our customers care too. McDonald’s began working on beef sustainability in 1989 and in 2014 we published our first global sustainability report. We are a hamburger company, so obviously our top priority is beef. Beef also accounts for the largest part of our environmental impact, so beef sustainability is a key step for us.

Our sustainability work is an opportunity to build more emotional connections with our customers. As we strengthen relationships through our supply chain and identify and manage risks, our sustainability efforts also help ensure we have hamburgers in our restaurants every day.

I like to think of sustainability as McDonald’s best-kept secret. We’ve been talking about it for a long, long time – but it’s not necessarily a message that’s gotten to our customers.

Elevation Burger: Our founders, a husband-and-wife team, believed deeply in serving organic, grass-fed burgers from sustainably raised cattle. We’ve kept that mantra as our company has grown to 60 locations. We pride ourselves on using organic proteins: beef, chicken and bacon. It’s been our founding principle from Day One. We believe it gives us a good position within our industry. We also believe that humane, sustainable and organic standards are what the future of meat should be, for animal, human and environmental health.

How do you define “sustainable beef?"

McDonald’s: There’s no broadly accepted definition, so we’ve been engaging the beef industry, non-governmental organizations, stakeholders and our customers to try to understand what it means to them. Beef sustainability is a complex story. Crafting an engaging, transparent narrative and communicating it properly to our customers is challenging.

Elevation Burger: We serve exclusively organic beef that is grass-fed and free-range from birth to burger. We source from three different countries so we can maintain sufficient supply. It’s more expensive than traditional beef but we’ve been able keep our prices reasonable. Our guests can get a burger, fries and a drink for around $10 to $12 at an Elevation Burger.

Have your guests influenced your decisions?

McDonald’s: Our guests told us they care about where food comes from, what’s in it, and how it’s prepared. We’re working across all three areas.

Elevation Burger: Many of our guests are very interested in sustainable practices and we continue to provide them with organic proteins. Having that conversation with guests can be difficult though, since the sustainability topic is complex and many restaurant customers don’t want to directly connect the fact that they’re eating an animal, even those that were sustainably raised.

We are committed to organic beef and continue to develop our communication around it. We’ve done some good market research to dig into why people are coming to Elevation Burger. We found that about a third of our guests are directly responding to the organic messaging.

Are you having difficulty sourcing organic or sustainable beef?

McDonald’s: Figuring out where to get beef that meets sustainability standards is our No. 1 focus right now. We’ve partnered with a number of organizations, including the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef. We launched a pilot program on calf-to-restaurant verification as well as other efforts in Ireland and Brazil. McDonald’s made a specific decision that organic is not necessarily the direction that we’re going. But we are taking some of the best processes and solutions from the organic method and multiplying them across the entire cattle industry.

At McDonald’s, we know these are complex issues and that it's going to take long-term engagement and investment throughout the supply chain. We’re committed to working with the entire beef industry on this.

Elevation Burger: Elevation Burger has been able to maintain an ongoing and growing supply of organic beef. There’s only so much organic beef available globally, though. There’s room to continue improving beef sustainability and availability, but at least currently, larger restaurant chains will have difficulty purchasing sufficient sustainable and organic beef. It’s a high-demand, short-supply product globally.



Townsend Bailey is the director of supply chain sustainability at McDonald’s, where he works with product leads, suppliers, and stakeholders to integrate sustainability into McDonald’s food sourcing strategies from the farm to the front counter of McDonald’s 14,000 restaurants in the United States. He is also McDonald’s global lead for coffee sustainability.



Michael Berger is a founding partner and the vice president of chain Elevation Franchise Ventures.

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