How McDonald's Canada navigates consumer choice and supply chain demands

As the saying goes, if Henry Ford had listened to what his customers wanted, they would have said, “Faster horses.” For Nicole Zeni, that innovation philosophy means that while you do need to listen to your customers, you must be open to change, and challenged to thinking broadly and for the long term.

Zeni manages the food supply chain for McDonald’s Canada, a company that is one of the largest beef purchasers in the world. The company has been focused on transparency with its customers, or “guests” as she calls them, for nearly two decades. A big part of the company’s recent marketing and communications has been focused on sustainable beef and sharing the message that cattle are a valuable and important part of grassland ecosystems.

Zeni shared this message last week with 450 people attending the Advancing Women in Agriculture conference at Niagara Falls, Ont.

“Beef sustainability matters,” she says. “Cattle are an important part of biodiversity, and part of the carbon cycle.” But how cattle fit into the ecosystem is a big picture, complicated topic. Zeni says that communicating the importance of cattle and beef sustainability needed to be addressed creatively for McDonald’s customers.

Consumers want to know what sustainable beef really means, she says. It’s McDonald’s role, then, to provide credible information, and keep coming back to those “proof points,” and tell that story.

“McDonald’s is a burger company,” Zeni says, but its recent announcement to pilot plant-based meat replacement has come under scrutiny, as the company had originally said it was not going to go that way.

“I do think the two can co-exist,” she says, adding it’s about “giving our guests choice.” But that’s also why it’s important that the McDonald’s beef supply chain carry the certified sustainable beef logo and the information to back it up, she notes. “We’re incredibly committed to beef,” she says, “… and we want to grow the amount of certified sustainable beef that flows through our supply chain. We want to grow that volume.”

There are many considerations for McDonald’s when it comes to sourcing ingredients. The company also announced a move to sourcing free-run eggs, a move that some in the industry considered bowing to animal rights voices instead of sound science. Zeni says that the company has to balance customers’ demands around animal welfare and changing preferences and the company’s own commitments on things like climate change and waste reduction.

“These conversations aren’t going to go away,” Zeni says. “We need to keep talking, to keep working together.”

Hear Nicole Zeni in conversation with Bern Tobin in this audio recording at the recent Advancing Women in Agriculture conference:

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