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McDonald’s set its sights on sustainable beef

Big Mac burger at a McDonald's.
Jason Alden | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Big Mac burger at a McDonald's.

McDonald's latest endeavor may come as a bit of a surprise: The fast-food behemoth is pursuing sustainable beef. As Fortune reports, the chain is funding two sustainable beef pilot programs in the U.S., following years of tests in Canada, Europe, and Brazil.

The first program involves a research partnership with agricultural nonprofit the Noble Foundation that will seek out ways in which sustainability can be improved across the entire U.S. beef supply chain. For the second program, McDonald's is putting up $4.5 million to test new cattle-grazing practices "that can actually lead to net-negative carbon impact," according to a statement from the company. McDonald's also says it will eliminate deforestation (the cutting down of forests to make room to raise cattle) from its supply chain by 2020.

While McDonald's may not be seen by consumers as a major trendsetter, it's the world's second-largest restaurant chain (behind only Subway) and is highly influential across the fast-food industry — and, as Fortune notes, McDonald's is also one of the biggest beef buyers in the world. After the chain announced in September 2015 that it would switch to cage-free eggs, dozens of other companies followed suit, from Subway and Wendy's to Wal-Mart. Trying to stir up consumer goodwill via cage-free eggs and sustainable beef also makes sense in the scope of McDonald's never-ending efforts to lure in millennials, who tend to care more about such issues — though the chain still has a long way to go when it comes to how it treats its workers and the nutritional quality of its food.

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And, as Fortune points out, a big part of sustainability has to do with portion sizes. Cattle production uses an incredible amount of resources, and people who want to reduce their carbon footprints are often advised to consume less meat. But since McDonald's newest menu item is a super-sized burger known as the Grand Mac, it seems unlikely that the chain's sustainability plans will involve shrinking its burgers.