Environmentalists target McDonald’s over intensive winter grazing. David Williams reports

You can almost feel the wind ruffling the lustrous pasture, accompanied by the soft mooing of contented cattle.

“For delicious grass-raised beef New Zealand is the perfect combo,” the McDonald’s corporate website states.

“An ideal climate, lush pastures and innovative farming produces enough beef for Macca’s in New Zealand and around the world. Our patties are 100% quality beef, and all that’s added is a dash salt and pepper when cooked.”

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Activists intent on ending intensive winter grazing are trying to knock this narrative, waging a campaign against the fast-food giant which has previously used its market power to take an ethical stance.

“In 2015, we became the first and largest New Zealand restaurant chain to make the move to serving only free range eggs in our restaurants,” the company’s website says.

A complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority wasn’t upheld, and McDonald’s NZ is now trying to draw a line under the situation.

“These activists have stated they intend to continue to cause reputational damage to McDonald’s, even though we’ve addressed some of the misinformation and claims they’ve made, and illustrated how we are proactively working to help support the beef and dairy industries,” head of communications Simon Kenny says.

But McDonald’s refuses to say how much winter-grazed beef is in its entire supply chain, and whether it will even bother to find out.

Activists maintain the company is indulging in greenwashing, and winter grazing can never meet the company’s professed sustainability ideals.

This beef over farming standards seems set to continue.

Serious negative effects

Let’s start by explaining intensive winter grazing.

Officialdom describes it as grazing livestock on paddocks planted with forage crops – so, not pasture – between May 1 and September 30. It’s mainly used by farmers in colder regions like Otago, Southland and Canterbury.

“When done poorly, it can have serious negative effects on animal welfare and the environment,” the Ministry for Primary Industry’s website says.

Opponents say the crops are eaten down to bare earth and when it rains the earth turns to mud while the animals are on it.

The Government established a winter grazing taskforce in 2019, and, a year later, announced new regulations. But their implementation was delayed to last month, ready for next year’s winter season.

Ministry for the Environment’s director of implementation Sara Clarke says the delay was necessary so intensive winter grazing regulations “could be more practical and give farmers time to understand what is required”. (Federated Farmers called the rules “unworkable”.)

Farmers not able to meet conditions for a “permitted activity” will need a consent to continue.

“Ministry for the Environment officials estimate between 1000 to 6000 farmers may need to apply for a consent based on current practices – ie, this figure does not account for on-farm changes to IWG practices that may be made between winter 2022 and winter 2023.”

Last year, after its annual compliance flights, the Otago Regional Council said there was increasing awareness of existing and incoming rules. Compliance manager Tami Sargeant said: “The majority of the sites that we followed up on the ground were fully compliant with current rules, but may have breached incoming rules around critical source areas.”

National and ACT oppose the regulations over cost and operational uncertainty concerns for farmers.

Industry organisation Beef + Lamb says winter grazing is important for farmers and there have been “considerable and measurable improvements”.

“Beef + Lamb NZ acknowledges that winter grazing, like many things on and off farm, has environmental impacts if not well managed,” says policy and advocacy general manager Dave Harrison.

Farmers work hard to minimise their environmental impact while maintaining high standards of animal welfare, he says.

“They have invested significant time and energy on improvements. These include written plans, managing grazing to avoid sediment loss to waterways, providing loafing areas and buffer zones, and the use of catch crops like oats to capture any nitrogen left in the wake of winter grazing.”

Environmental activist Angus Robson, of Matamata, says “mud-farming” hits the environmental damage jackpot because it’s the worst farming method for groundwater nitrate pollution, sediment and sewage runoff, and soil damage.

The Robson-aligned group NZ Rivers says claims of improvements by farmers can be debunked by a drive around the South Island in winter, showing the extent of animal and environmental “abuse”.

In August, animal welfare group SAFE said vulnerable cows and calves were suffering in muddy paddocks due to the agriculture industry’s “self-regulation”.

That sounds quite different to “an ideal climate, lush pastures and innovative farming”. Hence Robson’s complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority that McDonald’s claims were misleading.

A key question is: How much beef supplied to McDonald’s has been winter grazed?

Focus on exports

The Advertising Standards Authority complaint opined McDonald’s NZ beef supply chain contained “a significant amount” of winter-grazed products as there’s no differentiation at the freezing works. On that basis, Robson said, the company should “stop greenwashing” by claiming its beef is grass-raised from lush pastures.

McDonald’s response to the authority stated winter-grazing – and Robson’s activist group – is focused on the South Island.

“The majority (over 95 percent) of beef sourced for McDonald’s domestic supply comes from the North Island.

“Therefore it is accurate for McDonald’s to note that the majority of beef used in our patties is sourced from farms where cattle are raised in pastures and fed grass.”

The Advertising Standards Authority complaints board relied on this information when it found the advertisement wasn’t misleading.

But hang on, Robson says.

“That completely disregarded and overlooked the export beef, which from what we can see is significantly produced in the South Island.”

A 2019 story on Newshub’s website said McDonald’s used 6.86 million kilograms of beef at its 170 New Zealand restaurants, and another 22.45 million kg was exported.

Last month, a sponsored content piece in Stuff’s Your Weekend magazine, inserted into its metropolitan newspapers, said: “McDonald’s is one of the world’s biggest buyers of beef, including more than 60 million kilograms a year from New Zealand.”

Robson admits his complaint wasn’t explicit about export beef and he hasn’t appealed the ruling because the company would probably say it wasn’t making corporate claims about meat sent overseas.

To be fair, though, the website mentions: “… beef for Macca’s in New Zealand and around the world.”

McDonald’s response to the ASA excoriated Robson’s complaint for “unsubstantiated claims” and “subjective comments”, but it didn’t directly address export meat.

It said: “McDonald’s claims regarding local beef supply are fact-based and/or possess the reasonable basis on which the claim is made.”

Newsroom asked McDonald’s how much winter-grazed beef it takes for domestic supply and export, if there is any winter-grazed beef sold in its New Zealand stores, and if it’s taking to steps to find out.

Kenny, the head of communications, didn’t answer these questions.

“Our expectation is that farmers meet any regulations and local consent requirements, and our suppliers provide direct support to farmers relating to winter grazing.”
– Simon Kenny, McDonald’s

In his emailed statement, he said following the Advertising Standards Authority’s ruling – that there were no grounds to proceed – the company reiterated to “the activists” the “facts” about its supply chain, “including where we source beef and dairy, and our suppliers’ general approach with farmers with regards to winter grazing”.

“McDonald’s encourages the continuous improvement of its supply chain, and in New Zealand we invest in a range of programmes, including a regenerative agriculture trial run by AgResearch, and funding for Beef + Lamb farming programmes.

“We are also a founding member of the New Zealand Roundtable for Sustainable Beef. Our expectation is that farmers meet any regulations and local consent requirements, and our suppliers provide direct support to farmers relating to winter grazing.”

A social media campaign and protests against McDonald’s by Robson’s group were the first time winter grazing had been raised with the company, Kenny said. It’s not uncommon for the big corporate to be targeted to draw attention to a cause.

“McDonald’s sought to talk with the activists in good faith, and had extensive consultation with suppliers, industry groups and McDonald’s global supply chain and sustainability to understand the subject and its relevance to McDonald’s.”

That’s not good enough for Robson. It’s simple in his mind: if there’s no winter grazing in its beef, McDonald’s should say so and it won’t have to do a thing.

However, if there’s a lot of it the company should use its market power to demand a separate supply chain to exclude winter grazing – just the way it did with free-range eggs.

The McDonald’s corporate website says: “We’re constantly monitoring every aspect of our business to make sure we’re looking after our customers, employees and the environment to the highest standards.”

Robson says it’s impossible to see how McDonald’s can meet its own ethical goals, environmental goals, and welfare goals – “none of those goals can be met for export and for local consumption while they’re taking mud-farmed product”.

“The only way to be able to authentically adhere is for mud farming to be out of their supply chain.”

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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