McDonald’s is moving toward a menu free of artificial colors, flavors and preservatives, but every product has a unique challenge, said Amy Wilcox, director of quality systems and supply chain management for McDonald’s USA. She and her colleague, Cynthia Goody, chief nutritionist for McDonald’s, explained how “clean” ingredients are a key part of the chain’s sustainability initiative during the “Sustainable Approach to the Menu” panel at Restaurant Leadership Conference.
But “we can’t use the clean label description, because everyone has a different definition,” said Wilcox. “We had to create our own definition for suppliers, operators and customers. And that involved a lot of outreach to make sure all our suppliers were on the same page.”
The chain, in fact, announced this past September that is was removing artificial preservatives from its “classic” burger lineup in the U.S. “We have a great group of suppliers,” said Chris Kempczinski, president of McDonald’s U.S., at the time. And now, the chain announced that a third of its eggs are cage-free—and it expects to source 726 million cage-free eggs this year.
Right now, chicken nuggets fit the sustainability criteria, as do American cheese and burgers. As far as McDonald’s burger goes, “the pickle presented a problem,” said Wilcox. “We couldn’t find one that fit our definition, so we went forward with what we had and put an asterisk next to it on the menu. Being truthful and transparent is important to us.”
Technomic’s Rich Shank, another panelist, agreed. “Our consumer research shows that the most important aspect of sustainability is transparency of ingredients. And consumers expect the same or more commitment to sustainability from chains as independents,” he said.
Shank presented findings from Technomic that outlined the four Ps of sustainability: People, planet, product and profit. Product refers to food transparency, and planet, environmental consciousness. The people part requires attention to social responsibility; companies have to be accountable to employees, customers, communities and future generations. But the last piece is profit: How to achieve sustainability without hurting business.
McDonald’s announced Thursday that 84% of its McCafe coffee in U.S. restaurants is sustainably sourced—a figure that’s on track with the chain’s goal of serving 100% sustainably sourced coffee worldwide by 2020. To drive home the message, McDonald’s replicated a South American coffee farm inside a dome on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue, inviting consumers in for a complimentary McCafe coffee and a chance to experience sustainable coffee growing.
Walking through the dome under the coffee trees, the crowd learned about the effects of climate change, water usage and deforestation on the coffee crop, and how McDonald’s is partnering with the Rainforest Alliance, Conservation International and other organizations to train farmers and promote good agricultural practices.
Townsend Bailey, McDonald’s director of U.S. supply chain sustainability, explained the company’s McCafe Sustainability Improvement Platform (SIP), launched in 2016 in conjunction with McDonald’s coffee roasters. SIP invests in the coffee growers and their communities, engaging with about 6,000 farmers on the ground. A key element is training, said Bailey, covering areas such as planting density, climate-smart agriculture and waste water treatment. In 2014, a fungus called coffee leaf rust destroyed many crops and trees, and efforts are now being made to plant the right coffee varietals for specific growing areas as a preventative measure. The farmers are also being educated on how to use their land to support their families throughout the year, said Bailey.
The Rainforest Alliance works on water conservation in coffee growing areas, training the farmers to use less water by planting denser crops. Farmers can earn Rainforest Alliance certification by implementing water conservation and other sustainable practices, said Miguel Zamora of the Rainforest Alliance. Once certified, they can receive a monetary incentive that can go back to the community.
In Colombia, coffee roasters S&D Coffee and Farmer Bros. are working with McDonald’s and its partners to assist groups of coffee farmers in improving their crops and communities. Incentives from sustainability initiatives are poured back into training, fertilizer, waste water treatment facilities and the building of wet mills to aid in harvesting the coffee.
Coffee crops are especially vulnerable to rising temperatures. A study by the Fair Trade Organization revealed that climate change has the potential to cut the world’s coffee-growing area in half by 2050. Research and training has encouraged the planting of coffee varietals that are more adaptable to hotter temperatures.