From farm to fries: a potato story

The All-Access Moms head to Grand Falls, New Brunswick to tour the McCain French Fry Facility and meet with local potato farmers. They also learn more about agricultural techniques used for farming potatoes and see first-hand exactly how McDonald’s® World Famous Fries™ are made.

The All-Access Moms potato blog posts:
Select an All-Access Mom to read her first-hand account:

Debunking the Potato Myth

I could have called this article French Fries, but really? After what I experienced I was amazed. It’s all about potatoes. I witnessed a farmer digging furrows filled with white Shepody and Russet Burbank varieties, saw women sort rocks from tubers, watched a truck take the spuds to the McCain plant in Grand Falls, New Brunswick, and was amazed by the unloading and conversion into the famous fry. BTW, a tuber is a potato. I’m fancy.

As our first ‘food’ experience the three All-Access Moms worked hard to ask every question in an unbiased manner while witnessing how McDonald’s food is produced. We spoke to McCain about the fries just not ‘looking’ real – they are too perfect. (This is where the ‘sawdust/manufactured potato’ myths begin). But when I saw the care and technology that goes into making sure every bit of green sunburn, leftover peel, and black spot on each potato is removed in order to create the perfect fry, I was astounded.

The Farm

Our first stop was the 650 acre farm of Gilles and Aline Desjardins. A true family farm once owned by Gilles’ father, the couple grows several types of potatoes on 335 acres (McDonald’s specific varieties are grown on 180 acres). During the harvest season, friends and family come out to assist. Kind of like a barn raising. But not.

What stood out for me?

  • The farmer’s wife talking about how she takes her grandson to McDonald’s and grinning as she tells him that the fries are made from ‘Papa’s’ potatoes.
  • Digging in the dirt myself and finding 10 potatoes produced by just one plant. (Yes the manicure got wrecked).
  • Riding on a harvester with women who work to separate the debris for 12 hour shifts.
  • Seeing the 18 foot-high humidity-controlled storage areas for potatoes.

When you talk farming, most people want to know about fertilizers, chemicals and pesticides. McDonald’s requires that the growers meet all of their strict regulatory requirements for any input (stuff that goes into growing their product) including crop protection, fertilizers, and water restrictions. I asked the big question: “This year, if absolutely no agents were applied to the tubers during the season, how many potatoes would have been acceptable to turn into fries?” The answer: “None”. It rained too much this year and without fungicides, all crops would have been lost. Wow.

The McCain Plant

And then we get to the plant. We donned equipment – lab coats, hard hats, glasses, earpieces and galoshes. Not even Manolo could make those look sexy. It was so intense, I felt like I’d just done my MBA. As facility manager Jim Waugh showed us around, I was blown away by the level of food safety and employee-driven initiatives at the facility.

The potatoes we saw harvested the day before were being unloaded from a truck and muddy recycled water washed the raw potatoes as they slipped into an underground conveyor system that began their transformation into fries.

Conveyor belts everywhere filled with potatoes – each knowing exactly where it needed to go. All peels and unusable parts are diverted onto other conveyor belts, and checked time and time again to reduce waste. The true waste products are then converted into biofuel and used as energy to run the plant. The equivalent of 15 per cent of the plant’s energy comes from this ‘waste’. Cool. And all I do at my house is make compost.

The peels are actually ‘shocked’ off with high pressure steam. Potatoes then, one at a time, are shot through the cutter at approximately 65 km per hour. The French fry is born.

At this point, the raw fries are blanched and put through a dryer. Here’s where I can finally address the whole Youtube ‘why doesn’t a French fry decompose’ question.

The farmers work so diligently to produce the perfect potato for the fry, it was amazing to see such care taken in reducing waste from every tuber. The machines are so sophisticated that they needn’t reject a whole potato if part is not perfect. Fries fly through the line and are instantaneously photographed, followed by shots of air pinging the unusable ones onto an alternate conveyor belt. Seriously. I couldn’t make this stuff up. This is done three different times to make sure almost 100 per cent of the end product is perfect.

And now the blanching. The fries pass through a solution containing dextrose (a corn derived sugar used to replace the sugar lost during the blanching process) and SAPP. I am such a brainiac I actually thought it was tree ‘sap’. But no. At least I gave everyone never-ending chuckles every time they heard the word. In fact, the SAPP is a sodium acid pyrophosphate. Yes, it’s a chemical. Yes it is deemed safe by both the FDA and Health Canada and it is used to retain the natural colour of the potato, otherwise it would turn black just like an apple does when you cut it and leave it on the counter.

At each stage I was able to touch, smell and taste the fries. Don’t worry. They never went back into the process, in fact, food safety was so important we couldn’t wear nail polish or jewelry. After the blanching, the raw sticks are par fried in oil. I’m no nutritionist, but there were several people weighing in through Twitter (#McD_Moms) on our visit to the plant. The two chemicals that stimulated the most discussion were TBHQ and dimethypolysiloxane. Say it 5 times fast. Both of these substances are approved by Health Canada and the FDA. Dimethylpolysiloxane is approved for use in common foods such as jams, jellies, marmalade, canned fruit (like pineapple), reconstituted lemon juice, non-stick sprays and even beer. TBHQ is commonly found in shortening, frying oils and lard. (This is when you head to your pantry and check the ingredients of stuff you normally buy). Ok. Now you can weigh in on Twitter.

This is the exact point (so sayeth my sophisticated taste buds) that the potato sticks all of a sudden, start to taste like the famous McDonald’s fry. Though, the full flavor isn’t picked up until they have been completely cooked at the restaurant.

After the par fry, the potatoes are flash frozen, sent to packaging and bagged and boxed, going immediately into freezers and then refrigerated trucks. The testing of the fries is incredibly thorough.

Overall? The standard is exceptionally high. I’m not saying fries are going to make you feel like a supermodel if you eat them daily. But for the occasional treat? I’m cool with giving them to my kids. I don’t think there are any chemicals that don’t absolutely have to be there or that aren’t contained in foods I regularly buy at the supermarket.

The thoughts and opinions of the moms participating in the McDonald’s All-Access Moms program are their own and not those of McDonald’s Corporation, McDonald’s Restaurants of Canada Limited, or their affiliates.