Literacy is as much a parenting priority as ensuring our prodigy are well fed. Some lessons, like teaching them not to bully or washing behind their ears are simpler parenting goals than others. While instilling compassion can be done on a tight budget, not every child has access to the plethora books that are required in order to develop a passion for reading.
Gene Covert is a pretty cool guy. But he has to be. His mother is still a pilot, and the 1952 Mercury truck that she decided to learn how to rebuild is still the touring vehicle for the farm. Not only does the farm started by his father specialize in organic growing, but they grow grapes for Peller Estates wines, house a summer freestyle ski training jump for the Apex Mountain freestyle team, produce organic wine and have the biggest puffy trampoline thingy and plastic rolling apparatus for kids I’ve ever seen. Oh, and his wife homeschools. So I pretty much can’t even begin to feel worthy.
With a grumpy 6 year old who was instantly charmed by Gene, we began our tour of Covert Farms, nestled beside McIntryre Bluff which separates the north and south Okanagan. It took us all a while to get over the beauty of the truck and I admit that I took more photos of it than I did the farm for quite some time. Seeing grape varietals, feeding organic corn to cows and having a ‘snack break’ at an organic fruit mecca was incredible. But discussing vinticulture, sustainability and permaculture with Gene? Priceless. I spoke of my experiences as a McDonald’s All- Access Mom while touring cattle and potato farms. We talked at length about canning and preserves (yes. I did buy 90 pounds of organic tomatoes which have now been transformed into tomato sauce). The harvest season is the perfect time to go organic at Covert Farms, Osoyoos BC.
Feeling entirely comfortable, the kids asked questions and made observations. We were all sad when we had to get out of the truck. But it was then that the kids noticed the huge bubble-trampoline, and the adults sampled wines with local cheese and charcuterie. At which point we may have purchased a case of wine.
Disclosure: Our family was given a tour of the farm and a wine tasting for the purposes of this story.
There’s a joke in my house about me not being a morning person. But it goes further than that. I’m so groggy in the morning that I probably should have padded walls in the hall and a bathrobe made of bubble wrap so that I don’t hurt myself on the way to the coffee maker. Unless I make it the night before I always measure wrong. One friend laughed and told me it was ‘simply’ the miles to kilometers ratio for portioning coffee to water. That didn’t help much.. If I had a few million dollars I wouldn’t hire a cleaning lady or a chef. I’d hire somebody to place my coffee beside the bed in the morning so that I could wake to the scent and avoid EMI – early morning injury.
When McCafé first launched I had the opportunity as an all-access-mom to work behind the counter at a McDonald’s restaurant where I could act professional and run the barista machine. Incredible. Perfect every time (it was the machine), full of flavor and float-on-a-cloud aromas. I got slightly addicted. But then I ran into the issue of having to jump in my car in the morning in a half-awake state in order to reach the drive-thru for coffee. Not a wise move. The last time I tried I drove over my purse whilst backing up. I remember at university McDonald’s used to deliver to our residence. MMMM. Can you imagine fresh-brewed McCafé in the morning delivered all steamy and rich after you’ve been up all night writing a paper?
Though I still do a fair amount of last-minute writing, pigs can’t fly and I’m no longer in a university residence, but a thrilling coffee solution has fallen into my kitchen. McCafé is now sold in every major grocery retailer in Canada. To keep in your pantry! McCafé at HOME! In Canada, 65% of coffee is consumed in the home. I suspect that stat is about to go up… And if you have a fancy coffee maker you’re still golden – it comes in K-Cup, Tassimo T-Discs, or Ground. BOOM.
Now if McDonald’s could just teach my kids the miles to kilometers ratio…
As my readers know, this is a magazine – not a blog. From time to time I (as the publisher) feel the need to pontificate. (Hopefully with wit and good grammar.) Hold your tongue – you readers with hefty English degrees.. This one is ‘on being an ambassador’ (and I’m one for writing like I speak).
I was invited to an overview of P&G products. Having been a McDonald’s All-Access Mom I know what it means to align yourself with a brand. (Insert nail biting here). You must know everything about the company and it’s practices – often more than the employees or executives. You must field questions via social media, be honest on camera and willing to put in 14-hour days. You must be an investigative reporter with discerning questions (without being kicked out of the program entirely – for what good would that do?).
I admit that I hesitated. The McDonald’s experience was more than I had bargained for and yet I discovered a company and culture that were incredible. And then I was asked to be a P&G Mom. Who was I to demerit another ‘huge’ company based on rumour and social media pressure? But the term ‘ambassador’ has certain responsibilities. I agreed to see what they had to say. I knew that given my experience, I was able to ask the right questions. I was willing to take the social media heat.
So I went. And I am so thrilled I did. Of course I’m a ‘Four Season’s girl (they hosted it there) and love trying new products (which many of us have donated and have been sent to Hurricane Sandy victims in New York with the help of Coach USA). But there was more. More good. More positive.
The executives I spoke to about toxicity and environmental responsibility emailed me back the next day (on a Saturday) with specific answers. The PR folks were proactive in addressing my concerns. Other executives from Proctor and Gamble delved into my mind, looked into my eyes over dinner – and they REALLY wanted to know how I felt about… laundry – not just their laundry products. I felt as if I could make an impact. If I am honest, open and transparent – when I bring concerns from my readers to the appropriate people – perhaps I / we can help guide the direction of the company. I really believe this is what P&G had in mind with the program.
On the big day of the conference, P&G hired a moderator to get feedback from real moms on so many of their products. That’s corporate responsibility. That’s smart. (It also gives them a huge savings on big-idea consulting.). When the McDonald’s executives discussed their program over dinner with the 4 moms involved in the All-Access program, I certainly felt as if we had made an impact. The CEO took handwritten notes. He asked a hundred questions. (And only a portion of our feedback was positive. But they didn’t want to hear the positive stuff.) They wanted the moms’ perspective on what needed to be changed to make them a better company. They know what they do well. They want to be better. And as true ‘ambassadors’, we were in a position to tell them.
That’s what an ‘ambassador’ means. You need to know more about the company than most of the employees. And be willing to be smart and mature on social media. You need to think outside the box. To seriously consider negative feedback from social media and take a risk to get the real answers. You need to meet the people behind the company – the chemists and farmers and salespeople. This is why companies are paying attention to Mom ambassadors. That is what will propel the profession and help the public connect with the brands. And that is why any time we agree to the role of ‘ambassador’, it is a big job. A big responsibility.
From what I have heard and read so far, I am very much an ambassador. But I chose to get my BA in theatre and politics – not in chemistry or sales – and I cannot learn all of these arts in a few days. So I invite all of my readers – just as I did as a McDonald’s All-Access Mom – to ask questions. You know more than I do about your own experience as a Mom and a professional – and as an ambassador, I am simply a conduit to extracting honest and relevant answers. We’re all parents. We all want healthy, happy kids. Ask me. I assure you I will get the answers. That’s what an ambassador does.
Picture this. London, 2011. A big boardroom full of Cargill Employees, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), McDonald’s employees, and 4 absolutely stiff, petrified Moms. And a baby (Mo is so devoted her 3 week-old joined us). We knew how these things worked by now and how this tour would go…. coffee, an intense 3-hour crash course about the industry and how the facility is run, with farming fodder thrown-in and tweets being answered at the same time. Then a lunch. And then. Gasp. A plant tour. (You thought the gasp was for the crazy helmets, lab coats, safety goggles and hairnets, didn’t you?) Unlike our beef and potato plant tours, however, for this tour we were slated to see the… I have trouble saying it. The point at which an alive chicken becomes a not-alive chicken. We were terrified. Why don’t I start at the beginning, though. The chicken. No. The egg. Snicker. (See – I use humour when I’m not quite comfortable).
From Egg to Chicken:
The eggs are collected daily from the farms and transported to a hatchery where they are incubated for 19 days. A ‘setter’ constantly turns the eggs to keep them warm and provides a simulation similar to a mother hen sitting on top of them. That revelation kind of validated my role as a mother. Kind of. In a George Orwell kind of way. At the 19-day mark, the eggs are vaccinated and transferred to hatch baskets where they will hatch within 2 days. Once hatched, the chicks are separated from the eggshells and transferred to chicken farms until market age (40-45 days old).
From Chicken to Egg:
I’m completely convinced after meeting the farming experts, regulators, and Cargill employees, that care for the animals really is paramount. Cargill deals with 140 chicken farms and all must meet very rigorous standards as specified by McDonald’s. In Canada, the family farm model is the norm. Having farmers own and care for their chickens until the point at which they are transported from the farm for processing helps ensure the quality and integrity of the farm.
The barns are kept at 28 – 32 degrees celsius and the chickens roam around on shavings. They always have access to feed and water and are free to roam within the barn. Federal regulations in Canada recommend that no more chickens can be in a barn than 31 kilos per meter square. Farm managers and their staff visit the barn throughout the day.
For all of you who are going to ask about ‘free range’ in the barns, the chickens in these barns are just meat birds (broiler chickens). These are very different than egg layers. The broiler chickens are kept in barns to ensure food safety. If these meat birds were outside they would be more susceptible to disease.
Advances in feed for the birds mean that currently, 2 pounds of grain fed to a chicken will produce 1 pound of chicken. The feed is 88 percent grain, 10 percent protein, and 1-2 percent vitamin supplements.
All catchers and drivers are trained in animal welfare practices and as of July 1, 2011, a person must be specially licensed to transport chickens. The live birds are put into crates and the birds must be able to move comfortably. They are on the trucks only 4-8 hours, as most farms are within an hour or 2 of the London Cargill plant. During the warm summer months, the birds are misted to keep them more comfortable in the heat.
From Alive Chicken to Not-Alive Chicken:
In the Cargill plant, 3,200 different food safety and quality checks occur on a daily basis. There are even 2 X-ray machines that detects residual bones or foreign material – and the chicken meat passes through 2-3 times!
I was shocked to hear that 80-90,000 chickens are processed daily. 900 people work at the plant, and only 3 per cent leave the facility each year. Cargill boasts one of the lowest turnover rates for the meat industry in the world.
The facility is separated into the raw chicken processing part and the food manufacturing part. For food safety reasons, employees wash their hands and go through a boot sanitizer and, in addition to regular cleaning, the entire plant is completely cleaned and disinfected nightly by 60 people – like the inside of a dishwasher. I wish my house had that capability.
When the live chickens come into the plant, they are removed from the truck by a human being on a scissor lift to ensure that the employee is at the same level as the crates. This is better for people, to help avoid back problems, as well as the chickens.
In the slaughter area, everyone was so calm and peaceful I didn’t know where I was until it was pointed out to me. It wasn’t what I was expecting. It was very dark, with a blue light shining. As per Temple Grandin’s recommendations on animal welfare (link to beef post), the facility has been audited and Temple Grandin has approved of the process itself. In addition, blue lights are used because birds can’t see the colour blue so it appears dark. They are hung by the ankles, a plate or bar rubs the breast of the bird and they hang touching each other, shoulder to shoulder. I witnessed first-hand how calm this makes the birds. They are not flapping or making noise. They travel on a rounded track and are dipped quickly in water where an electrical stun renders the chicken insensible to pain, which means they are unconscious and alive but do not feel any pain. Their necks are cut and the bleed-out occurs while the chicken is unconscious so they are dead before they wake.
To remove the feathers, the birds go through a hot water bath and pickers – rubber fingers – massage the bird and take out feathers. The head and feet are removed and a machine removes the organs, transferring the viscera to a separate line. The organs and bird are kept together for inspection so that if the inspector and vet condemn a bird, the whole bird will be disposed of – again for food safety. Fifteen federal inspectors, including four CFIA vets work at the London facility. Once the chicken and organs have been inspected and approved, the meat moves on to food processing. Every part of the chicken has a use. The organs are used for pet food and animal feed, while the blood, feathers and offals are sold to a rendering company that makes ingredients for animal feeds, fertilizers and markets such as cosmetics, rubber and explosives.
The bird is placed in a chilling tank for 1 hour and must cool to less than 4 degrees Celsius in order to debone, which means to remove the bones from the meat. Chlorine is present in the chiller for sanitation purposes, much like a swimming pool. Levels are monitored every hour. At this point, an antimicrobial treatment is applied. It is cetylpyridinium chloride – the same substance contained in mouthwash. This is an opportunity to reduce salmonella. The bird is then rinsed. For the record, this is when I relaxed significantly. I was now looking at chickens like I’d buy in a supermarket.
75 per cent of the original bird goes into debone process, and I was shocked at the number of people working together to debone the chickens. By hand. Seriously. Wow. There is no mechanically separated meat in McDonald’s products. The frames of the chicken that are left at the end of the process get sent to another facility for people who use mechanically separated meat for hotdogs and other products.
The Making of McNuggets:
The white breast meat, along with chicken stock and a natural proportion of skin from the breast is placed into a huge blender. I didn’t realize that there is skin in the nugget mixture but this helps to hold the shape. The meat is then mixed and chilled using CO2. McNuggets are formed, not ground. There are 4 shapes that are pressed out with a rolling cookie cutter: boot, bow-tie, ball and bell. The reason they are all standard in shape and size is to ensure consistency in all McDonald’s restaurants. This guarantees both food safety (standard cooking times in restaurants) and portion control.
Once the fun shapes pop out, they are coated in batter, dusted with flour and then given a final coat of tempura batter. Who knew? From here they are par-fried and placed directly into the freezer. A thin mist of water is sprayed onto them, as tempura is susceptible to dehydration. They are then inspected and packaged to be sent off to the restaurants.
We also witnessed the grilled chicken being made. It’s pretty simple – it’s just one huge hunk of breast meat but a laser-guided water jet cutter trims it to an exact size. Very James Bond.
In all, I will still eat chicken. I will still eat McNuggets. I’m satisfied with the animal treatment and food safety. I think I’ll stick with the grilled chicken in snack wraps and sandwiches, as there are fewer ingredients, but the nuggets sure are yummy! For the other All-Access blogs please click here, or to see the UrbanMommies Q and A, click here.
As many of our readers know, our publisher was chosen as a McDonald’s All-Access Mom, to see behind the scenes at McDonald’s Canada. Yes, the experience included meeting and moo-ing at a bunch of cows, as well as a potato farm, chicken plant, restaurant visit, Hamburger University and head office. As part of a promise to answer all of our readers’ questions, we’re publishing a Q and A for each trip. Here’s the beef. (More beef jokes in the main article on the trip).
Q. Do they use hormones in what the cattle are fed?
A. Some farmers decide to use hormonal growth proponents and this is a business decision. For the farmers, there are costs associated with the hormones, and they must weigh the cost/benefit for their business.
Q. What are hormonal growth promotants?
A. Hormonal growth promotants are in the form of naturally occurring sex hormones which are administered to animals in order to improve an animal’s ability to use nutrients efficiently. Health Canada has approved three natural hormones and three synthetically produced hormones for use in cattle in Canada.
Q. What benefit is there to using hormones?
A. When these are used, the animal uses its feed much more efficiently. This means that the meat will contain more lean meat and less fat in the end. There can be more growth using less feed, resulting in less expensive beef for the consumer.
Q. How does the Canadian Government monitor the use of growth hormones?
A. In addition to the strict requirements which must be met in order to obtain approval to sell, and to use, growth promoting hormones in Canada, Canada’s national food safety agency, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), conducts regular monitoring programs in which thousands of samples of all meat products are analyzed to ensure that any drug residues which remain in meat are well within lawful, and safe, limits. Results of these monitoring programs are published regularly by the CFIA. Since residue levels of the natural hormones in beef are in the same range in both treated and untreated animals, Canadian regulatory authorities have concluded that it is not necessary to establish so-called safe limits of the natural hormones. CFIA monitors for residues of the synthetic hormones and Canadian regulations do not permit residues of any of the synthetic hormones to be present in meat. And year after year, Canadian beef has been in virtually 100 per cent compliance, that is, there are no residues in the beef.
Q. What about bacteria, Mad Cow Disease (BSE) and E. coli?
A. BSE control and testing happens both on the farm (sick-looking animals are isolated and tested) as well as at McDonald’s-approved primary meat processing (ie. slaughterhouse) suppliers. Canada does 40 times more than the global standard in terms of BSE prevention. Now, feed bans exist where the food chain is even more protected from contamination. Recent cases of BSE existed in older animals that were alive prior to the feed ban. In the last 3 years, there have been more than 100,000 animals tested with only 3 positives.
Beef is tested for E. coli 0157:H7 before it arrives at the facility. Any beef that tests positive for E. coli 0157:H7 never goes back into the McDonald’s food chain. In addition, the Cargill facility tests the incoming beef again for 0157:H7 as well as other types of bacteria according to the McDonald’s food safety standards. Quality checks and tests are also done on the finished patties. Test results on every batch of patties are seen prior to any box being released via the distribution networks.
Q. How do you make sure employees don’t lose their temper with animals at all stages of the process?
A. The CFIA has a Code of Practice related to animal welfare. In addition, there is a certified livestock transport program created by the Alberta Farm association to ensure humane treatment of animals. At the primary processing facilities, everyone who works there all go through animal welfare training. There is 3rd party video monitoring at all primary processing facilities. This technology can detect sharp movements and employees are always held accountable. If any facility ever fails an audit, McDonald’s may disapprove them as a supplier of beef.
Q. Is meat washed with ammonia?
A. No. Ammonia is only present within the refrigeration system to cool down the meat and never comes into contact with the meat itself. The refrigeration system used to run on Freon and it is now run on ammonia.
For our publisher’s full article on McDonald’s beef, please see the All-Access Microsite.
About to take off on my final journey I am quite sad, actually. The whole experience as a McDonald’s All-Access Mom has been transformative, but not in any of the ways I expected. Sure – lots of questions have been answered, I’ve traipsed around farms and plants (check out the videos), and worn way too many un-sexy lab coats. But I also feel like a better mom. A better citizen. The corporate culture of McDonald’s and its suppliers is much friendlier – much more transparent, than I was expecting. After almost 6 years of momm-ing, I think I’ve gotten a bit too insular. Charity work had lapsed and a disconnection to the world and it’s news had set in. The opportunity to participate in the MAAM program has helped change that.
I am most excited about seeing the Ronald McDonald House Charities. Giving back. Sharing. Helping. These charities give homes and home cooked meals to families whose children are hospitalized with severe illness. I will be spending a full day with the children and families involved in the London, Ontario house, learning about the program and more importantly, the people. I hope that I can take the lessons of charity and giving back to my own children and incorporate them into our daily lives. I know there has been criticism of the All-Access-Mom program, but this is an opportunity to get a glimpse into something that nobody could say McDonald’s doesn’t do really well.
The second part of the trip? Chicken at the London, Ontario Cargill facility. Shall I cluck like when I moo-ed at the cows? Want to know the deal with the shaped McNuggets? (I already asked about chicken lips and toenails getting into the mix.) Nada. Any other questions? Reconstituted white meat? Glue? Sawdust? Last chance!!
Wanna see the first bits of the Mom’s discoveries on McDonald’s? Watch Cityline on Wednesday, October 26th to see Nanny Robina, Jill Amery, Maureen Dennis and Tenille Lafontaine as we investigate the myths surrounding one of the world’s largest corporations. For our writing on the discoveries, please refer to the McDonald’s All Access Mom Microsite.