Burger Sustainability: A Vague Promise or a Serious Initiative?

By Tanya Broschinski

Sustainability and in particular sustainable burger production is a hot topic among the quick service restaurant industry (QSR). A&W led this movement in Canada with their antibiotic free, grass-fed beef program in 20131. Other QSR’s like Burger King, Subway, Wendy’s, KFC and now even McDonald’s followed suit making an effort to position themselves as sustainable fast food brands2. McDonald’s sustainable beef program ensures that at least 30% of the beef used in their Quarter Pounder is certified sustainable3 according to the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (CRSB)4.

What role do antibiotics play in beef production? Why does it matter whether we feed cattle grain or grass? What does sustainability even mean? Do consumers even care what’s in their burgers? Is this just another marketing attempt to greenwash these brands?

To answer these questions I turned to University of Guelph professor Mike von Massow for help. His research focuses on how people think about food, consumer preferences, product labeling, novel food products, animal welfare, and antibiotic use5.

In 1950 farmers first began using antibiotics to prevent disease in animals which helps promote growth6. A common misconception of antibiotic use in animals is that antibiotics are used directly to increase the growth rates of cattle. “Antibiotics don’t promote growth,” professor von Massow explained, “they are used to prevent disease and keep cattle healthy in order to promote growth”7. While antibiotics are a useful technology in keeping cattle healthy the concern is when antibiotics are overused. “We have used a lot of antibiotics to hide poor management, high stocking rates, and poor hygiene” 7. Realization of the misuse of antibiotics is promoting changes in regulation which brings hope for the future of antibiotic use in cattle farming. “I think we’ve seen real progress in regulation and practice. Historically the beef industry has used less antibiotics except for in feedlots and the feedlot industry is using far fewer antibiotics in an effort to be more responsible”7.

Concerning the diet of a cow, cattle are “ruminant animals that have evolved primarily to convert grass to energy in the form of meat or milk. Cows do not need to eat grain” 7. One grass fed cow needs approximately 1.8 acres of grassland over its lifetime8. In feedlots this is not possible as cows are kept on a few acres. Some factory farms have up to 1,000 cows per acre8. Feeding cattle grain is a relatively cheap way to give them higher energy levels. “It’s nice in the winter to give them a bit of grain to keep them warmer, but you can feed nothing but grass to cattle and they will grow just fine” 7. Aside from being a cost efficient way to feed a large number of cattle in a small space feeding grain to cattle often makes the meat more palatable. “Part of it is that we’ve become accustomed to grain fed beef and part of it is personal preference, grass fed is a gamey, leaner and tougher than grain fed. Feeding small amounts of grain to cattle will result in more marbling, more fat and make the beef more flavourful” 7.  Feeding large amounts of corn to cattle, however, is comparable to a person eating a large amount of Halloween candy or an entire box of sugary cereal9. It makes them sick and farmers will combat this with preventative antibiotics to sustain the cattle10.

Before discussing sustainable food production the meaning of sustainability must be determined. This term is often thrown around and it has become a buzz word throughout the media. It now has “so many meanings that it has essentially become meaningless” 7. Sustainability is a very difficult term to define because it has become so subjective. “To a degree consumers hear the term sustainability and feel reassured even though they don’t understand the details behind it” 7. There are many organizations, including the SAI Platform Beef Working Group11, the CRSB4, and the Canadian Beef Centre of Excellence12 that have different standards for sustainable meat production. To professor von Massow sustainable beef means beef “produced in a way that’s environmentally sensitive; produced in a way that’s economically sustainable and a way that treats people and the community in a equitable way” 7. McDonald’s defines sustainable beef on the CRSB’s standards4, A&W defines it in terms of regenerative agriculture13. “In order to get the most meaning measure we need people to say ‘this is exactly what we do and these are the implications of what we do’” 7. A&W does a good job of this by informing consumers that their beef is 100% grass fed beef, producing beef on land that is otherwise not well suited to grow crops, and their contribution to maintaining the grassland ecosystems1. “The word sustainable does not hold much meaning anymore, we need to use other terminology” 7.

“As consumers it’s up to us to decide what is important in regards to what we eat” 7.  Some people opt not to eat meat at all, some opt for grass-fed or antibiotic and hormone free. In terms of some health risks often paired with eating meat “part of it may be how it’s produced but a lot of it has to do with how much we eat. We are eating bigger quantities of meat than ever before” 7. There is no simple one size fits all solution to the problem of unsustainable food production. “In the end part of the problem is many people have no idea how food is produced so talking to them about it is meaningless” 7. Regardless of their knowledge on the subject it is clear that consumers do care about how what they eat is impacting the planet. “If consumers didn’t care, these restaurants wouldn’t be talking about it, but instead of just depending on the term ‘sustainable’ consumers should do their research into how a specific item is produced” 7.

It’s easy to see QSR using the term sustainability and conclude that this word is coined as a marketing gimmick. Seeing that McDonald’s uses only 30% sustainable beef in one of their burgers may lead some to believe they are not making much of an effort. “The challenge they have is, do they make a commitment when they can do 100% or do they make the commitment initially and work their way from there” 7. A QSR like McDonald’s making the initial effort to switch to sustainable beef opens the doors for producers who want to farm by those standards but did not previously have the market to sell to. “As long as they are trying to get better. Customers will give them credit if they are trying” 7. It will take some time before the producers can catch up to the demand for beef produced in a way that is environmentally conscious. Big players in the QSR industry getting on board with these ideas will raise awareness for the initiative and help make a positive impact.

Tanya Broschinski is a third-year student completing an independent study course entitled Introduction to Organic and Biodynamic Agriculture. 

1 A&W. (n.d.). Explore Our Values. Grass-Fed Beef. A&W. https://web.aw.ca/en/our-values/our-food/beef

2 Seah, N. (2020). 7 Sustainable Fast Food Brands in 2020. Workstream. https://www.workstream.us/blog/7-most-sustainable-fast-food-brands

3 McDonald’s. (n.d.) Sustainability. McDonald’s. https://www.mcdonalds.com/ca/en-ca/about-our-food/sustainability.html

4 CRSB. (December 2017). Sustainable Beef Production Standard. CRSB. https://www.crsbcertified.ca/assets/Uploads/Framework-Documents/CRSB-Sustainable-Beef-Production-Standard-v1.0.pdf

5 Food, Agricultural & Resource Economics. (n,d,). Mike von Massow. University of Guelph. https://www.uoguelph.ca/fare/users/mvonmass.

6 Ogle, M. (September 3rd 2013). Riots, Rage, and Resistance: A Brief History of How Antibiotics Arrived on the Farm. Scientific American. Retrieved from https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/riots-rage-and-resistance-a-brief-history-of-how-antibiotics-arrived-on-the-farm/

7von Massow, M. (December 10th, 2020). Personal interview with professor Mike von Massow.

8 Suddath, C. (April 23rd 2010). The Problem with Factory Farms. Time. Retrieved from http://content.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1983981,00.html

9 Goodman, R. (September 27th 2012). Does Feeding Cattle Corn Harm Them? Beef Runner. Retrieved from https://beefrunner.com/2012/09/27/ask-a-farmer-does-feeding-corn-harm-cattle/

10 Rodale, M. (2010). The Organic Manifesto. Rodale Books.

11 SAI Platform. (2013). Principles for Sustainable Beef Farming. SAI Platform. https://saiplatform.org/uploads/Modules/Library/sai-platform-principles-for-sustainable-beef-farming-final.pdf

12 Canadian Beef. (June 2016). Understanding the Difference in Organic and Other Beef. Canadian Beef. http://canadabeef.ca/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/3208_CANBEEF_factsheet_ORGANIC-2016.pdf

13 Regen Organic. (n.d.) Farm like the world depends on it. Regenerative Organic Certified. https://regenorganic.org/

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