Global Brands’ Beef Purchasing Practices Fail to Protect South American Tropical Forests from Destruction

New Report Scores 13 Fast Food, Retail and Food Manufacturing Companies

Published Sep 12, 2016

OAKLAND, Calif. (September 13, 2016)—A new scorecard released today by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) found that beef purchasing practices of 13 global fast food, retail and food manufacturing companies leave tropical forests in South America at risk of being converted to pasture for cattle. The report, “Cattle, Cleared Forests, and Climate: Scoring Global Brands on Their Links to Deforestation-Risk Beef,” found that even the top-scoring companies—McDonald’s, Walmart and Mars—aren’t doing enough to ensure they are not purchasing beef  linked to tropical deforestation. The clearing of tropical forests contributes about 10 percent of all global warming emissions.

“The latest science shows beef production is responsible for more than twice as much deforestation as the other top drivers of tropical deforestation—soy, palm oil and wood products—combined,” said Lael Goodman, a UCS tropical forests analyst. “South America is ground-zero for forest destruction from beef production. We need to protect South America’s tropical forests from conversion to pasture for beef cattle to reduce global warming pollution and protect the planet from climate change.”

The UCS report scored 13 companies—Burger King, ConAgra, Hormel, Jack Link’s, Kroger, Mars, McDonald’s, Nestlé, Pizza Hut, Safeway, Subway, Walmart and Wendy’s—that sell fresh and frozen beef, burgers, sandwich meat, corned beef, pizza toppings, beef jerky and pet food. The science group scored the companies on a variety of criteria, such as whether they have deforestation-free purchasing commitments, adequate transparency around how they’re implementing their commitments and sufficient systems to trace and monitor their supply chains for deforestation.

The companies buy from South American meatpackers that have enormous influence over beef supply chains, as the meatpackers control ranchers’ market access. After buying cattle from ranchers, meatpackers slaughter, process and package the beef before selling it to global companies. The global brand companies should work with the meatpackers to ensure their supplying ranches are not associated with deforestation, according to UCS.

The scorecard found the companies making the most progress are Walmart, McDonald’s and Mars. Walmart and McDonald’s are two of the biggest players in the market, but loopholes in their commitments and practices can allow for continued deforestation. All three companies should publicly share more details about their implementation and verification processes (such as audits), and expand implementation beyond the Brazilian Amazon to be global in scope, covering other forested areas such as the Cerrado in Brazil and the Chaco in Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina and Bolivia, according to UCS. In just five years, deforesting and burning of the Cerrado released 1,449 million metric tons of carbon-dioxide equivalent into the air—with conversion to pasture responsible for more than half, equivalent to the annual pollution from 211 coal-fired power plants. The Paraguayan Chaco has one of the highest deforestation rates in the world.

Nine of the 13 companies—Burger King, ConAgra, Hormel, Kroger, Pizza Hut, Subway, Jack Link’s, Safeway and Wendy’s—have failed to make any public commitments with associated implementation plans to purchasing deforestation-free beef.

Burger King, McDonald’s main competitor, lags way behind McDonald’s in addressing deforestation in its supply chain, and it is one of four companies that received a score of zero. It has failed to take any meaningful action to work with its suppliers to ensure that it is not purchasing beef linked to forest destruction.

“Burger King makes no commitment to ensure its beef meets any kind of environmental standards,” said Goodman. “Nor does it even acknowledge its beef purchasing practices may pose a risk to tropical forests. Its only commitment is membership in two different beef sustainability roundtables. The fast food company needs to take individual responsibility for its supply chain and put in place a time-bound plan to ensure that its operations are not contributing to tropical deforestation.”

The other companies that received scores of zero are Pizza Hut, Kroger and ConAgra. Subway received only five points. The companies in the middle of the pack—Hormel, Safeway, Nestlé, Wendy’s, and Jack Link’s—fell short for a variety of reasons, including a lack of transparency and public communication about their actions to guarantee deforestation-free beef products.

“Consumer pressure is needed to protect tropical forests from deforestation due to irresponsible beef production,” said Asha Sharma, a UCS researcher and lead author of the report. “Our goal is to make sustainable beef production the industry norm, which is why we are urging the public to demand these companies take deforestation-risk beef off their ingredient lists. This means global brands should work with their supplying meatpackers to create a new industry standard of deforestation-free beef.”

In conjunction with the beef scorecard release, UCS is launching a campaign calling on companies to buy only zero-deforestation beef. This strategy—which combines ecological science, business economics and consumer pressure—has proven to be a winning mix. A similar effort involving UCS advocacy and demands from millions of consumers resulted in 26 corporations committing to buying deforestation-free palm oil.