Marion Gross is chief supply chain officer for North America at McDonald’s. The opinion expressed in this commentary are her own.
The fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic has me thinking a lot about something former McDonald’s Chairman Andrew McKenna once said: “Our supply chain is a daily miracle. The groceries arrive at the backdoor of over 38,000 restaurants every single day, and no one thinks twice about what it takes to make that happen.”
In many ways, the global meat supply chain is similarly miraculous. We’ve made technological advancements that allowed for the production and distribution of meat more safely, quickly and efficiently than people ever thought possible just a few generations ago.
These advancements were necessary to keep up with consumer demand, which has grown rapidly due to trends like urbanization and rising incomes. Whereas in the past, meat was an occasional luxury, today it is more widely accessible and affordable, and people around the world have made beef, pork and chicken a regular part of their diet.
That’s why, when the Covid-19 pandemic caused retail shortages earlier this year, it caught the world off guard. Shoppers arrived at grocery stores to find meat aisles empty or extreme price hikes on protein. Some diners went to restaurants to find their favorite burger unavailable.
The truth is, this pandemic has exposed vulnerabilities in the meat supply chain that are challenging our food system like never before. Meeting consumer demand responsibly, especially during times of crisis, will require the industry to make three key commitments.
We must keep workers safe
A primary cause of North American meat shortages was the temporary closure of meat processing plants after employees fell ill with Covid-19. I cannot state this more plainly: We must implement measures to protect these essential workers. Companies must ensure their employees know and feel that their workplaces are safe.
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This work is well underway. Meat processors are acting on interim guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) –providing employees personal protective equipment, installing socially distant work stations, changing staffing models and strengthening paid sick leave policies. But the key word here is interim. We’re still learning about Covid-19 and its transmission, and there’s still so much we don’t know.
We cannot take the pedal off the gas. Measures ensuring the health and well-being of workers must continue to evolve. Industry, in close partnership with government, must lead and base their decisions upon the best available science. The mandate to evolve also applies across the entire meat supply chain — including farmers, processors, distributors, retailers and restaurants.
At McDonald’s, we have updated nearly 50 safety processes in our restaurants, but we recognize this is the beginning of a long journey. We will continue to partner closely with health authorities to modify operations as needed, and we expect our suppliers to do the same.
We must tap into local and global resources
Covid-19 shone a spotlight on the tightness of processing capacity within the meat supply chain.
Compared to a generation ago, there are fewer but much more efficient operations capable of producing greater quantities of food. This model supports modern agriculture as we know it, allowing for the consistency and low costs consumers have come to expect. It also magnifies the impact of disruptions like disease and natural disasters when they occur.
I believe we can mitigate those disruptions by building an agile, diverse supply chain comprised of local farmers, multinational agriculture companies and everything in between.
We saw numerous examples of local businesses supporting their communities through online sales and delivery during the Covid-19 crisis. At McDonald’s, local sourcing helps us diversify supply while also supporting family businesses and driving local economic growth.
Equally important, maintaining a global perspective allows us to leverage our scale and reallocate supply if shortages arise. It’s thanks to this philosophy that throughout the pandemic, McDonald’s has not had a single supply break globally, though we continue to monitor supply closely. That also feels like a daily miracle, but we know it is expertise, collaboration and strong relationships in our supply chain and with our franchisees that made it possible.
We must invest in innovation
Covid-19 isn’t the first challenge we’ve faced as an industry, and it certainly won’t be the last. We need to keep actively exploring and funding new technologies that support more efficient, safe and sustainable production.
I am inspired by the strides our supplier partners are making in this area. They’re finding new ways to leverage automation and robotics — not to replace their workforce, but to make their jobs easier and improve productivity. They’re testing blockchain technology to increase traceability of meat from farm-to-table, which has significant implications for food safety and quality.
As one of the world’s largest restaurant companies, McDonald’s also has a responsibility to accelerate sustainable innovation. We take that responsibility seriously, and we’re partnering closely with farmers, agricultural scientists and research institutions to study and test new solutions. For example, through our beef sustainability strategy, we’re working with the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research and several US universities to look at how regenerative cattle grazing practices can capture more carbon in soil — reducing greenhouse gas emissions while also improving biodiversity on agricultural land. Programs like this will help McDonald’s meet our commitment to reduce emissions intensity (per metric ton of food and packaging) by 31% across our supply chain by 2030 compared to 2015 levels.
Public health, worker safety and environmental conservation are all highly complex issues that are impossible for any single company to tackle alone. But coalitions like the US Roundtable for Sustainable Beef and nonprofits like World Wildlife Fund are uniting key players and catalyzing positive change.
As painful as the Covid-19 pandemic has been for so many, it has also forced important conversations like this one that will make both the meat industry and our restaurant industry stronger. Through collaboration and partnership, we can emerge from this crisis better positioned to ensure the security and sustainability of the meat supply chain to help feed generations to come.
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