You'd have to be truly naïve to think we aren't steadily moving toward being told how we'll be permitted to produce livestock – beef, pork and poultry – even milk. This might not be so troubling if those directives were coming from those with real-world experience.
But when those trying to call the shots have no firsthand knowledge of livestock production, it's very troubling. And when those shot-callers have their own not-so-hidden agendas, it becomes much more so.
This is the age of the Humane Society of the United States, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and consumer perception. Facts be damned! Those with the most financial backing and most TV sound bites rule the day.
In response to that clamor, McDonald's put the beef industry on notice in early January that McD intends to put real teeth into dictating how beef they buy will be raised. Here's "McDonald's Three-Part Plan for Sustainable Beef":
Our aspiration: A world in which all beef in our supply chain comes from verified sustainable sources.
• Support development of global principles and criteria in 2014.
• Develop targets for purchasing verified sustainable beef.
• Begin purchasing verified sustainable beef during 2016.
Our vision: McDonald's beef comes from farmers and processors who create economic value and nutritious protein through verifiable, diverse production systems that:
• Optimize cattle's impact within ecosystems and nutrient cycles;
• Positively impact lives of their employees and communities they operate in;
• Care for the welfare of the cattle throughout their lives.
Our approach: Create principles and criteria for sustainable beef production:
• Identify and test sustainable beef production practices.
• Lead with transparency and engagement.
• Work closely with our suppliers and other partners for industry change.
Following Walmart's lead
Last fall, Walmart announced an expanded program and a standard of excellence that'll involve at least half of the cattle industry by the end of 2016. The guidelines reportedly will include how you care for land, reduce manure emissions and improve water quality.
That plan envisions sourcing 15% of Walmart's beef supply under new environmental criteria by 2023.
While producers would even agree with a number of above-mentioned goals, the devil is in the details. And, a key problem remains.
After years of discussion, there's still little agreement as to what "sustainable beef" really is. In the "good old days", sustainable meant you broke even or maybe even made a few bucks and could hang on for another year.
It's now much more about animal welfare and the environment. Today, it's now about what consumers perceive is the best way you should raise your animals.
Stay tuned for further announcements from major companies who purchase your beef. At this point, no one seems to know how "sustainable beef" will be verified or what the criteria will be.
Do these "shot-callers" realize that many calves born this year will be marketed in 2016, the year they say their purchasing program will begin? It might be nice to know the rules of the game before it begins!
Harpster is a Centre County, Pa., beef producer and retired Penn State University animal scientist.