dana liebelson

Dana Liebelson

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Dana Liebelson is a reporter in Mother Jones' Washington bureau. Her work also appears in Marie Claire and The Week. In her free time, she plays electric violin and bass in a punk band.

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McDonald's Definition of "Sustainable": Brought to You by the Beef Industry

| Thu Mar. 20, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

In January, McDonald's announced that it will begin the transition to sustainable beef in 2016. The plan was met with skepticism, since it didn't actually define "sustainable." In the weeks that followed, McDonald's continued working with a group called the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (GRSB) to come up with a working definition of the term, and on Monday, GRSB released a draft of its definition for public comment. In addition to McDonald's, GRSB's new set of sustainability guidelines will also be implemented by the group's other members, which include Walmart, Darden Restaurants (the parent company of Olive Garden and Red Lobster), Cargill, Tyson Foods, and the pharmaceutical company Merck.

Despite its name, the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef is not so much an environmental organization as a meat industry group. Its executive committee includes representatives from McDonald's, Elanco, and the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. Just two environmental groups—the World Wildlife Fund and Netherlands-based Solidaridad—are part of its executive board. Cameron Bruett, president of GRSB and chief sustainability officer for JBS USA, a beef-processing company, said that McDonald's, along with other members, helped come up with the organization's "sustainability" definition and guidelines. 

"I don't know if there's any justification for banning antibiotics in feed," said a GRSB spokesman.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the group's leadership, the GRSB's guidelines are short on specifics. Instead, the group provides a definition for sustainability that is open to members' interpretation. The plan says, for example, that sustainable companies must provide "stable, safe employment for at least the minimum wage where applicable" and institute "where applicable, third-party validation of practices by all members of the value chain." But it doesn't doesn't specify which third-party groups should conduct audits, and doesn't explain how workplaces should be monitored to prevent labor violations. In its section on climate change, it says that GRSB members should ensure that "emissions from beef systems, including those from land use conversion, are minimized and carbon sequestration is optimized." But it does not include any specific examples of target emissions standards or grazing policies.

Also absent from the plan is any mention of the beef industry's use of antibiotics. In the United States, four-fifths of all antibiotics go to livestock operations. McDonald's uses antibiotics to "treat, prevent, and control disease" in its food-producing animals, according to a McDonald's spokesman.

Using antibiotics to prevent disease—rather than only to  treat infections—has been criticized by some food-safety experts. But the new plan doesn't recommend that members ditch the practice. "I don't know if there's any justification for banning antibiotics in feed, I know that's popular in some media circles, I haven't seen the scientific evidence," said Bruett. Yet studies have shown that antibiotic-resistant bugs can jump from animals to humans. In February, several experts told Mother Jones that McDonald's couldn't call its beef plan sustainable unless it addressed the overuse of antibiotics in livestock. When asked about whether McDonald's will continue to be given antibiotics under the new sustainability plan, a McDonald's spokesman referred Mother Jones to this statement from February, saying "We take seriously our ethical responsibility to treat sick animals"​ and indicated that the company will continue to review its policy.

GRSB says that the lack of details in the plan is intentional; it "deliberately avoids" metrics that could be used to measure progress in sustainability, instead leaving it up to local roundtables to tailor the recommendations to specific regions. Bruett noted that "You could come out with a global standard, but it would simply be ignored, and it wouldn't lead to improvements among members." He adds, "There's all the discussion about sustainability, but it's by people who have very little knowledge or participation in the livestock industry...you'll never achieve [improvement] unless you have producer participation or support.​" 

But Dr. David Wallinga, the founder of Healthy Food Action, a group of health professionals dedicated to promoting good nutrition, points out that while it's true that one-size-fits all metrics don't always work, without specifics, policies are "largely unenforceable." He adds, "I suppose it's good that McDonald's is taking on the task of setting guidelines for sustainable beef, [but] a few foundational blocks are missing."

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Justice Department Bad Boys: More Than 650 Cases of Misconduct Documented in 12-Year Period

| Fri Mar. 14, 2014 11:24 AM EDT

Federal prosecutors, judges, and other officials at the Justice Department committed over 650 acts of professional misconduct in a recent 12-year period, according to a new report published by a DC-based watchdog group, the Project On Government Oversight. POGO investigators came up with the number after reviewing documents put out by the Department of Justice's Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR). According to one little-noticed OPR document published last year, a DOJ attorney failed to disclose a "close personal relationship" with the defendant in a case he was prosecuting, in which he negotiated a plea agreement to release the defendant on bond. An immigration judge also made "disparaging remarks" about foreign nationals. POGO contends that this number is only the tip of the iceberg and OPR needs to release more information about this misconduct to the public.  

"The bottom line is we just don't know how well the Justice Department investigates and disciplines its own attorneys for misconduct when it occurs," says Nick Schwellenbach, a contributor to POGO. "The amount and types of misconduct DOJ's own investigators conclude has happened suggests more [information] should be public than is already, including naming names of offending prosecutors that commit serious misconduct."

OPR is responsible for investigating ethics complaints at the Justice Department, but the office reports directly to the attorney general. POGO argues that this insular system might not be sufficient to provide effective oversight of prosecutor wrongdoing. Last year, for example, two federal judges issued court orders complaining that DOJ attorneys had misled them about the full scale of the NSA's surveillance activities—but OPR was never aware of the complaints and didn't investigate them even though a former OPR attorney said that they should have triggered an inquiry, according to USA Today.

Between fiscal year 2002 and FY2013, of the more than 650 documented cases of DOJ employee misconduct, 400 were characterized as "reckless" or "intentional" by OPR. In OPR's latest report, from FY2012, the office received over 1,000 complaints and other correspondence about Justice Department employees (over half of these complaints came from incarcerated individuals) and opened 123 inquiries and investigations. 

In one case from 2012, a Justice Department attorney falsely told a court that the government didn't have evidence that a key witness suffered from an ongoing mental-health disorder—when the prosecutor did have that evidence, according to OPR. The attorney was suspended for two weeks and the state bar was notified. In another case, an immigration judge presiding over a case where a father and his daughter were fighting removal from the United States was found by OPR to have "engaged in professional misconduct by acting in reckless disregard of his obligation to appear to be fair and impartial" and to have made biased statements against immigrants. The judge was suspended for 30 days

OPR isn't responsible for disciplining employees; that's up to others in the Justice Department. OPR also no longer publicly names Justice Department employees found to be conducting misconduct, although it did so for a brief period during the Clinton presidency. In 2010, the American Bar Association passed a resolution asking the Obama administration to release more information about Justice Department investigations, potentially including names, but so far, not much has changed. 

"The department takes all allegations of attorney misconduct seriously, and that is why the Office of Professional Responsibility thoroughly reviews each case and refers its findings of misconduct to relevant state bar associations when the rules of the state bar are implicated," says a Justice Department spokeswoman. "OPR also regularly provides detailed information on the resolution of complaints to the defense attorneys, judges, and others who send allegations of misconduct to the department."

A bill proposed on Thursday by Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.) would overhaul how misconduct is investigated at the Justice Department. Right now, only OPR is allowed to look into ethics complaints, instead of the Justice Department's Office of Inspector General, which is widely considered to be more independent. The senators' bill would move that authority to the IG's office. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who supports the bill, says: "When Americans pledge to abide by 'liberty and justice for all,' that does not mean that those pursuing justice can creatively apply different standards or break the rules to get convictions—it means that in America everyone is held equally accountable." 

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