A "Sustainability Framework" produced by the US Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (USRSB) has been criticized as "greenwashing" by a number of environmental groups.

The USRSB recently published the document on its website, which is dedicated toward promoting sustainability in beef stock growing, slaughtering, processing, packaging and managing the supply chain. USRSB’s document is divided into six sections: “Framework Overview,” “Cow + Calf,” “Auction Market,” “Feedyard,” “Packer + Processor,” and “Retail + Foodservice.” USRSB has been asking for public comment on the document.

One comment—in the form of an eight-page letter—has come from a group of environmental, consumer, animal welfare, farmer and public health groups representing millions of constituents. Some of these groups include Friends of the Earth, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Earthjustice, the Sierra Club, the Organization for Competitive Markets, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, and several others, totaling 50 groups in all.

What’s the beef? The NGOs have accused the USRSB of “greenwashing,” saying that the “framework’s approach and metrics will fail to reduce significantly the major harmful impacts of factory farming and poor grazing management on the environment, communities and workers.”

“The Roundtable’s blatant greenwashing will undermine truly sustainable, organic and regenerative beef producers who are actually doing the hard work to protect natural resources, workers and animal welfare,” says Kari Hamerschlag, food and agriculture director at Friends of the Earth (FOE). “We are especially concerned that companies like Walmart, Costco, McDonald’s, Darden and Wendy’s will make sustainability claims to their customers based on the Roundtable’s meager and misguided metrics.”

Members of the USRSB include McDonald’s, JBS, Elanco, AgriBeef Company, Colorado Livestock Association, Tyson Foods, Cargill Meat Solutions, North American Meat Institute, Arby’s Restaurant Group, Taco Bell, Wendy’s, Walmart, Costco, ABS USA, American Feed Industry Association, and many others. Some of the group's members do have organic products and programs; for example, both Walmart and Costco have USDA organic ground beef available in their stores, and Costco has had an organic ground beef program going for more than eight years. When Costco can’t procure enough ground beef from US organic farmers, it turns to USDA-approved Canadian and Australian producers to pick up the slack.

Nonetheless, the NGO letter explains why the USRSB framework’s approach and metrics will fail to reduce the major harmful impacts of factory farming and poor grazing management on the environment, communities and workers. These serious harms include:

  • Surface water, groundwater and air pollution
  • Massive greenhouse gas emissions
  • The rise and spread of antibiotic resistant bacteria
  • Harm to fish, wildlife and biodiversity
  • High worker injury rates
  • Poor treatment of farm animals

The NGOs say that most of the USRSB’s indicators and metrics do not focus on measurably reducing impacts, and continue to allow for the use of growth hormones and routine antibiotics.

However, the USRSB’s document and approach to antibiotic usage, for example, is at first glance conservative, and the question may be one of education—how many farms/growers/producers actually follow the recommendations? For example, within the USRSB’s “Animal Health and Well-Being” section, the following points (abbreviated here) are given toward antibiotic usage:

The USRSB document offers this advice: Select and use antibiotics carefully. Consult with your veterinarian on the selection and use of antibiotics. Have a valid reason to use an antibiotic. Therapeutic alternatives should be considered prior to using antimicrobial therapy.

  • Avoid using antibiotics important in human medicine as first line therapy.
  • Use the laboratory to help select antibiotics.
  • Select and use an antibiotic to effect a cure.
  • Avoid inappropriate antibiotic use.
  • Treat the fewest number of animals as possible (sick or at-risk animals)
  • Treat for the recommended time period.
  • Avoid environmental contamination with antibiotics
  • Keep records of antibiotic use
  • Follow label directions
  • Ensure extra-label antibiotic use follows FDA regulations
  • Limit sub-therapeutic antibiotic use.

Recognizing the problems

The NGOs list five reasons why the USRSB framework is deeply flawed.

1. Failure to establish fair pricing mechanisms and address the consolidated structure of the US beef marketplace. For example, four of the largest beef producers own 85 percent of production and tend to control the market.

2. Lack of meaningful incentives, rewards and technical assistance for ranchers and farmers. The framework asks producers to make management changes without providing or encouraging adequate financial incentives.

3. The USRSB framework’s indicators, metrics and sustainability assessment guides (SAGs) are vague, weak and inadequate for reducing and minimizing impacts and enabling vitally needed progress.

4. Weak performance measures set a low bar, open the doors to greenwashing, muddy the waters of “sustainable” beef marketing claims and undercut efforts to recognize and reward credibly more sustainable producers and brands.

5. Inadequate approach to feed production—the USRSB framework fails to specify how it will reduce the devastating impacts of feed crop production.

While the NGOs make their points about sustainability, the USRSB document (Cow-Calf Sector) bears out some of the issues in the industry. On page 16, USDA 2012 Census of Agriculture shows there were 727,906 beef farms and ranches in the US. Of these, 91 percent are family or individually operated. The statistics show that 81.63 percent of the operations had from one to 49 head of cattle, 9.78 percent had 50-99 head, 7.83 percent had 100-499 head, while 0.02 percent had 2500 head of cattle or more on a single farm or ranch.

Perhaps more of a challenge in the US is managing feedlots, where cattle spend the last six months or so of their lives being prepped for slaughter. The trend has been toward bigger is better—not exactly what the NGOs favor in terms of environment. In 2016, USDA statistics showed 30,219 feedlots (or feedyards) in operation, and 93 percent (about 28,000) of the feedlots housed fewer than 1,000 animals. Collectively, this group of feedlots account for only 19 percent of the inventory on feed as of January 1, 2017.

The remaining 7 percent of feedlots housed anywhere from 1000 to more than 50,000 head of cattle at a single location, according to USDA demographics in 2016. The total number of feedlots has declined over the last 20 years with larger lots producing an increasing proportion of fed cattle each year.

In 2016, 259 feedlots, those with capacities larger than 16,000 head, marketed 58 percent of the fed cattle, according to USDA statistics. This shift, as in many industries, is primarily due to economies of scale and the ability of larger operations to focus specifically trained employees in defined job roles, thus improving efficiencies, says the USRSB document.

The USRSB document (Feedyards section) then goes on to provide metrics for water resource management, cattle performance weight gain, operational efficiency, pen management, nutrient management, employee safety and more—and provides references on all metrics and other areas involved in maintaining feedyards.

Fixing the problems

According to the letter submitted by the NGO group, there remains a lot of work to be done before a real level of sustainability can be reached. The group recommended 10 areas that USRSB should address in its framework. They are as follows in abbreviated form. For complete details, refer to the letter.

1. Processors, wholesalers and retailers should provide fair pricing mechanisms, concrete purchasing preferences, and price premiums to credibly well managed operations that provide verifiably more environmental benefits to society.

2. Improve the goals, indicators and metrics for the USRSB framework.

3. Endorse and form partnerships with independent third-party certifiers of beef cattle products.

4. USRSB corporate members should stop working to weaken, eliminate or otherwise undermine federal and state protections for America’s environment, climate, public health, animal welfare, workers and producers.

5. USRSB members should pool resources and expand technical assistance to producers.

6. Invest in infrastructure (especially local processing facilities) that supports the growth of small and mid-scale production for local, regional and value-added markets.

7. Work with policy makers to create public/private investments in irrigation districts that need financial resources to improve infrastructure—particularly to offer producers flexible irrigation scheduling and pressurized water delivery.

8. Address barriers to greater sustainability on leased lands.

9. Address barriers to advancing sustainability on federal public land grazing allotments managed by the US Forest Service and US Bureau of Land Management.

10. USRSB should work with partners in the insurance industry to offer (a) lower livestock loss and crop insurance premiums to producers who implement practices that improve soil health and resilience to our changing climate; and (b) lower livestock loss insurance premiums to producers who implement non-lethal practices for reducing conflicts with predators and other native wildlife.

“Beef can be raised in ways that restore soil, increase carbon, and protect waters and workers,” says Peter Lehner, senior attorney at Earthjustice. “Yet far too little of our beef is produced in this way. This framework falls far short of ensuring those goals are met. Indeed, many of the Roundtable’s leaders vigorously oppose clean water protections, transparency of impacts of facilities on neighbors, and addressing climate change. If the Roundtable wants to promote meaningful sustainability in the beef sector, then its members and particularly its leaders, should stop opposing and undermining policies that would bring us closer to sustainability, and start supporting them,” concludes Lehner.