From beef to burger

The All-Access Moms travel to Spruce Grove, Alberta to meet with another of McDonald’s® Canada’s first-class suppliers: Cargill Meats. They experience first-hand how our hamburger patties are made. They also visit a cattle farm and speak to the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association to learn more about the entire farming process.

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

It’s Cool that McDonald’s Helped to Revolutionize the Beef Industry in a Positive Way.

So I arrive in Edmonton, trying to have an open mind. But I order chicken with my pasta. I admit that I was a bit nervous after researching beef prior to my trip (by watching the ‘prerequisite’ documentaries and being sent daily emails from colleagues who want to educate me on food safety and animal treatment).

At the Cargill facility, we learned about the beef industry, its association with McDonald’s, and what we would be seeing when we witnessed hunks of steak being turned into hamburger patties.

I just want to pre-empt my article by saying that it’s about beef. If you don’t eat or like beef, I completely respect your decision. I’m not telling you to eat beef. Lots of people do though, and for the people who are interested, I am happy to share what I learned.

I was shocked at pretty much everything (not in order of shock-ed-ness)…

  • The meat arrives in roast form in plastic lined cardboard bins. The parts of the beef used to make the burgers are: shoulder, chuck and round as well as steak and roast trimmings. No organ meat is ever used in the making of McDonald’s burger patties.
  • The plant is totally tiny. Only 100 people in total work in the 50,000 square foot facility that produces every Hamburger, Angus burger and Quarter Pounder for McDonalds throughout Canada – approximately 1.2 million hamburger patties per day! The facility produces 70 million pounds of hamburger patties per year.
  • Cargill rarely has more than eight days worth of hamburger patty reserves on site, and restaurants get deliveries every five days. This means that from cow to restaurant, any hamburger you eat is only about 21 days old since it was alive and walking, so to speak.
  • So many people criticize McDonald’s for not forcing the world to eat only whole wheat, or not taking beef off the menu in favour of a vegetarian menu (that would miff their true customers), essentially for not taking the lead on major social issues. But I found out that the corporation actually does take the lead. Thank goodness. McDonald’s was the first major corporation to hire Dr. Temple Grandin (in 1997) in order to influence and change regulations within the beef industry. Temple Grandin is an American doctor of animal science, professor at Colorado State and a consultant to the livestock industry on animal behavior. As a huge purchaser of beef, McDonalds’s has so much influence and the reforms implemented in partnership with Grandin were dramatic; animal welfare and environmental sustainability practices were at the forefront. “McDonald’s should be given credit for bringing about improvements in animal welfare in the entire beef industry…I have been in this business for more than 25 years, and I have never seen such a transformation.” – Temple Grandin
  • Even with a lot of influence, much of the ‘beef industry’ doesn’t pertain to McDonald’s, and things like hormones, etc. are regulated by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). All beef – including the conventional supermarket meat you purchase – is regulated by this body. I will focus as much as possible on the parts of the process over which McDonald’s and its suppliers have control. More information on growth hormones can be found in the UrbanMommies Q and A.
  • My favourite quote from Hans Kabat at Cargill: “A culture of food safety means protecting people and animals at every step in the supply chain (from production to consumption).”

On the Farm:

  • The 4th generation farm owner we met was a super-hot petite blond woman who loves the cows so much she knows them by name. Agriculture is in her blood, and she has dreamt of doing it all her life.
  • There are 2 ‘calving’ seasons per year, and the pregnant cows are checked every single hour, even through the night, so the mother and calf can be brought into the barn for warmth at the first sign of giving birth. The birth process makes everyone kind of wet.
  • All of the grains and grasses that are fed to the cows are grown on the farm.
  • There are tons of questions about grass fed vs. grain, vs. corn. I was in Argentina a week before the beef trip and fell in love with the Argentinean grass fed, unaged product. In Canada, the cows are grass fed as they wander around acres of pasture (average farm size of approximately 850 acres) until the final quarter of their life, when they are taken to a feed lot. The feed lot is the place where grains are added to their diet. This is simply because our North American tastebuds want a certain taste to our beef, as well as a certain tenderness that can only be achieved by grain feeding to finish the growth of the animal. McDonald’s and Cargill cater to the desires and preferences of their customers.
  • Antibiotics are given at birth, and then again between 3-6 months. The cows are immunized (as the World Health Organization and the Canadian Association of Pediatrics recommends for our own children). Unless an animal is ill, no further antibiotics are given. They can only be administered under the direction of a certified veterinarian.
  • Pastures are really huge. Cattle wander, lay down, moo… actually the last one was me.

The Slaughter:

We did not witness a slaughter. We could have if we had wanted to, but I personally chose to have it explained in detail. Due to the sensitive nature of the issue, I would rather not write about it, but would be happy to discuss the process with you personally should you have any questions.M

“I think using animals for food is an ethical thing to do, but we’ve got to do it right. We’ve got to give those animals a decent life and we’ve got to give them a painless death. We owe the animal respect.” —Temple Grandin

The making of burgers:

  • Big hunks of meat arrive (super fresh). I picked them up and smelled them. It was amazing. Yes – I’m a carnivore. They are these parts of the cow: chuck and round cuts. No tongue, hooves, etc. (You asked). They go through a visual inspection process prior to being ground. Next, a machine makes sure no gristle, bone or foreign objects are in the beef. They are mixed so that the ideal consistency, stipulated by McDonald’s for their burgers, is reached.
  • So now you’re thinking….’Here’s where it gets good. Here’s where they add the cardboard/sawdust/beef plasma/mystery ingredients that make my kids love them’. Nope. I’ve got nothing. I’ve come up empty. It’s just beef. A nutritionist friend said – try to stick with things that have fewer than 5 ingredients. Just one here (BEEF!). Seriously.
  • And now you’re going to say…. “Wait a minute. My burgers at home need egg to bind, and breadcrumbs for texture.” Yup. Because you don’t have a CO2 / dry ice machine in your kitchen (just an assumption on my part) that cools the beef to just above freezing, allowing it to be formed so that it sticks together. When the patties are cookie-cut and knocked on the conveyor, they are immediately sent into a room resembling a hurricane/windstorm in the Arctic. It was nasty in there. Frostbite and scaly skin. There is a circular escalator thing, and once the patties have reached the top –they are frozen.
  • They then go down a fun slide (my kids would love it) and get immediately stacked by machine and packaged by hand.
  • There are 2,400 quality checks involved in a single day’s beef patty production.
  • Any employee at the facility can shut down the production line at any time and are encouraged to do so if they are at all concerned for food or personal safety.
  • Waste is a huge, ethical issue for us all, but particularly for the farmers and Cargill employees. If the cow gives its life, the employees or ‘stakeholders’ feel that it is their responsibility to make sure every ounce of the animal is utilized for something. So Cargill just gets the prime cuts that make McDonald’s burgers, and the slaughterhouse parcels off the rest. But just so you know – guess what else is made from this magical animal? (That’s a Homer Simpson quote if you didn’t catch it). Bones are processed into meat and bone meal which is primarily used in poultry feed and pet food. Rendering also produces both edible tallow used for food grade gelatin, etc. and inedible tallow which is used as ingredient poultry feed, pet food, soaps and cosmetics.
  • Efficiency is a huge issue as well. Why is Cargill in Spruce Grove? That’s where the cattle are. 70 per cent of cattle in Canada are located in Alberta and Saskatchewan.
  • The plant is tested daily for cleanliness using microbiological swabs in 300 different areas.

Overall, I have no beef with the way the animals are raised, or any other part of the impressive process. Oh come on, you didn’t think I could end a post without one beef joke.

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.