Can McDonald’s become a global leader in the sustainability movement? Let’s see what Keith Kenny, Senior Director, Supply Chain for McDonald’s Europe, has to say. He’s responsible for sustainability across the company and also has strategic sourcing responsibility for poultry, fish, vegetables and beverages. What challenges lie behind the world’s most standardized meal?

You’ve had problems with negative publicity in the past, from soy production in Brazilian rainforests to people dressed as chickens chaining themselves to your stores. Have things changed?

Brazil was a turning point for us. We thought we were doing the right thing by sourcing non-genetically modified soy, so we went to Brazil. Thanks to a new variety of soybean developed by Brazilian scientists to flourish in the rainforest climate, soybean production has boomed in the region over the last 10 years as firms have converted extensive areas of rainforest and cerrado, a savanna-like ecosystem, into industrial soybean farms.

What happened in Brazil was that genetically modified (GM) processes became legal within the soy industry. This started in the south, so we went north to chase the non-GM soy, and before we knew it, we were encroaching on rainforest-grown soy. We worked to pull a coalition of buyers together to put a moratorium in place on this soy.
We’re in a different situation from other large European retailers such as Sainsbury’s. They have 50,000 stock items in their inventory and we have only a handful. But where we do buy, we buy in huge volumes. This is equally as challenging, as we need to drill down into each of these supply chains and see exactly what’s happening there.

We’re one of the world’s largest buyers of beef, accounting for 2.5 percent of European beef production, and we consume about 10 percent of all mince produced in Europe. The biggest impact of our supply chain is at the farm, and we’re talking about half a million beef farms throughout Europe here. We have a set of requirements that we’ve implemented as we can’t afford to pay auditors to go to this many farms. There are a number of farm assurance schemes across Europe that deal with sustainability issues and we use them to build up a database of what’s going on in the industry.

We want to have agreement within the industry about the principles of sustainable beef production and we published a compilation of our findings in November 2014. Our aim is to get alignment within the system so that all producers don’t start contradicting each other. This will be rolled out at a global level in a multi-stakeholder initiative for sustainable beef. Our challenge is that people have different requirements, depending on the region, all wanting to talk about different things.

Did McDonald’s learn anything from the bestselling book Fast Food Nation and how did this affect you?

All our beef is from the European Union, and not from the U.S. It gets audited for food safety requirements and all other health requirements. We have a very tight control over what’s happening there, which is why we weren’t affected by the horse-meat scandal as much as other food retailers.

Beef is an inherently unsustainable product. What is your view on this?

Beef production can be sustainable. Our biggest challenge in the world is to feed a growing population. Remember that increasing incomes = increasing consumption. More than half of agricultural land in the U.K. is unsuitable for crop production and the only way to make it sustainable for food is to graze animals on it.
We’ve also done a lot of work studying emissions from farms. There is a 250 percent improvement in farms that are efficient vs. non-efficient around carbon emissions. We also use former dairy cows in our meat chain.
On the menu side, we’re continually looking at them and making them more nutritional. We have salads and wraps and all sorts of different items – that don’t always necessarily sell well.

Looking at land degradation around the world, how can you justify soy being fed to animals instead of to people?

Greenpeace has actually said that soy is no longer the driver of deforestation in the Amazon. Our tofu burger in the U.K. was met with mixed success. We try and keep our farms as sustainable and energy efficient as possible. For example, we use the manure from our cows to make methane gas, which is used as an energy source instead of electricity.

Not many people know about one of our websites, flagshipfarms.eu, which was developed by McDonald’s Europe in conjunction with the Food Animal Alliance to encourage the sharing of sustainable agricultural practices. We’re encouraging a dialogue between farmers to demonstrate the benefits of sustainable farming practices. An example is what some of our lettuce farms are doing. It’s highly targeted and results in massive water reductions, while increasing productivity. We’re assisting potato farmers in Norway to maximize their short growing season and assisting with innovative ways to reduce ammonia emissions from cows in Holland.

How do you share knowledge and ensure these lessons are learned?

Through the development of global corporate social responsibility schemes. We work with the World Wildlife Fund at a global level to create a sustainable forest policy and also focus on supply chain issues. We also rely on global strategies that can be externally verified. This might include certification that ensures that no child labor has been used during production, using Rainforest Alliance Certified Coffee that conserves biodiversity and forests in sensitive areas with high agricultural activity, and moving to Forest Stewards Council certified sources for our cardboard packaging.