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McDonald’s Chicken: From Egg to Nugget

EAT, family meals By February 6, 2012 Tags: , , , , , , , 5 Comments

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.

Grilled Chicken:

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.


McDonald’s Chicken Q and A

EAT, family meals By February 6, 2012 Tags: , , , , , , , 4 Comments

As with every All-Access trip, our published polls readers for questions and has promised to find the answers.  Here they are!

Q: What about vaccines, antibiotics and hormones used in chicken products?

A: Vaccines are administered once throughout the chickens’ life to prevent the birds from dying of diseases and improve the health of the whole flock. In order to feed millions of people and remove undue suffering of the animals, McDonald’s and Cargill’s policy is to vaccinate. Antibiotics are only given if a bird tests positive for illness, which would put the entire flock at risk. Antibiotics require a vet prescription and a strict withdrawal period is adhered to before the chicken is turned into food to ensure that no residual medications are present in the product.

McDonald’s has a global antibiotic policy. It is a policy that has been developed with the assistance of scientists and industry experts. Given that McDonald’s is required to process 90,000 birds per day in Canada alone to feed its customers, the company has a keen interest in making sure the industry is sustainable. The pre-emptive use of antibiotics is not allowed, nor does it allow sub-therapeutic use. Even the feedmills that produce the grains fed to chickens have to be accredited and constantly audited.

Hormones are illegal in Canada for use in chicken and in dairy.  This is due to the withdrawal period that is required.  There is not enough time for hormone elimination in milk and chickens. That’s why there are no hormones allowed. Beef has more time in withdrawal period and is therefore acceptable to use hormones before it is processed for meat production.

Q: People have asked me why there are so many ingredients in McNuggets and why the ingredients are so chemical-sounding?

A: McDonald’s is very careful about listing ingredients for allergy reasons and ingredients that could be bundled together are separated out to help people who may have an allergy.  Chemical names are used which might sound more complicated than they are (they say sodium bicarbonate instead baking soda, for instance).

For the full post on chicken please chick here.


McDonald’s Q & A: Potatoes and French Fries

EAT, family meals By November 8, 2011 Tags: , , , , , , , , 1 Comment

As a rule, fries are not a healthy choice as a diet staple.  They’re filled with carbs and are usually deep fried.  But they are also a great source of potassium – 20 x more than a banana.   You’re not eating organic spinach here. But for those who want to order a ‘French Fry’, I will tell you what I witnessed.  They are real potatoes, and have few added ‘mystery’ ingredients.  I’m not forcing you to order them or wanting you to feed them to your children on a daily basis.  But when you do treat yourself (I have always considered them a huge treat, and I have always loved the taste), just know that you’re eating real food.

Q: What’s the relationship between the farmers and the manufacturers?

A:  McCain has a team of dedicated agronomists to assist the farmers in producing the best crop possible.  It is truly a mutually advantageous relationship.  Kind of like ‘happy wife, happy life’.  Happy farmer, happy McCain people, happy McDonald’s business units, happy customers. Or something.

Q: Are chemicals used at the farm level in growing potatoes?

A: The big lesson about pesticides, fungicides and fertilizers?  Farmers have to purchase the stuff themselves out of their own budgets.  Chemicals are expensive.  If there is an opportunity not to spend the money on chemicals, they will obviously opt not to.  The agronomists help the farmers to determine the point at which fertilizers are required.

There are currently two programs in place that are part of McDonald’s specification that apply to safety and social responsibility for potatoes. One is the Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) audit, which through a number of established and documented surveys and audits assures the growers are meeting food safety, specific agricultural practices, and socially responsible people practices.

The second program, established in 2010, is the IPM/ICM (Integrated Pest Management and Integrated Crop Management) survey. This program assesses the use of various practices including approaches to minimize and optimize the use of any input from pesticide, fertilizer, and water.  There will be a quiz on this later.


The chemicals used on McDonald’s potato crops must be approved for use in Canada, the USA and any other country to which the fries may be shipped.  The levels need to be at or below the Maximum Residue Level of these countries.

Q: What’s up with the Youtube video where the fries never get moldy?

A:  Quite simply, the fries are so thin and contain so little moisture after being put through the dryer, there is not enough water contained within to assist in decomposition.  Further in the process, the flash frying and instantaneous freezing, and then at the restaurant level popping the fries immediately into the canola fry oil does not offer any opportunity for moisture to creep into the fry.  Believe me.  We saw what would happen if the process wasn’t followed and the result were grey/black fries that decomposed and stunk like old lunches in a high school locker.

Q: What ingredients are in the par fry oil?

A: The par fry oil is made up of canola oil, hydrogenated soybean oil, safflower oil, natural vegetable flavor, citric acid, TBHQ (a preservative) and dimethylpolysiloxane (antifoaming agent).

TBHQ is a highly effective antioxidant. In foods, it is used as a preservative for unsaturated vegetable oils and many edible animal fats.  The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Health Canada have all evaluated TBHQ and determined that it is safe to consume at the concentration allowed in foods.

Dimethylpolysiloxane is considered to be an inert, non-toxic, non-flammable ingredient used as a matter of safety to keep the oil from foaming and boiling over.   A review of animal studies by The World Health Organization (the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives) found no adverse health effects associated with dimethylpolysiloxane.  (I LOVE saying that word).

The amount of both these ingredients is minimal in the oil and the amount of oil absorbed by the French fries makes it even safer.

Q: What tests and systems of check and balance are in place to ensure quality?

A: First, the ‘test kitchen’.  Every 30 minutes, one bag is removed from the line, analyzed for colour, diversity of size, blemishes and taste.  There is actually an identical frying station to those found in McDonald’s restaurants and fries are sampled every 30 minutes to check quality.  If there are too many spots or anything wrong, the whole system is shut down. I can say the fries I ate in this room – made from potatoes we’d seen harvested in the field the day before – were the absolute best I’d ever tasted.

In addition, there are metal scanners at the final stage before boxing the fries, so if a machine drops a widget or an employee’s gold tooth actually falls out into the line, the bag is rejected.

Q: Are the fries vegetarian-friendly?

A: This one was answered in my previous Q and A found here.


McDonalds All-Access Moms: Balanced Impressions from Inside the Arches

EAT, family meals By August 18, 2011 Tags: , , 2 Comments

Dichotomy.  Ying and yang.  That’s all I can think.  The All-Access Moms program is exciting but controversial.  One glance at Twitter and that becomes apparent.  But McDonald’s opening up their doors and business to prying eyes and questions must be nerve-wracking for them too.  I have witnessed so many things already, and now ask readers to hear me out.  There will be negatives and positives.  Please try to hear each.  We have not been hired to convince anybody that the whole menu at McDonald’s is healthy.  We’re not here to tell you to eat there daily.  We’re being shown the behind-the-scenes stuff to really see the operations and what goes into the food.  And we’re not being edited.  As promised, I will address each of your questions on as I find the answers – the first few Q and A are located here.

The first trip was intense. A few comments and impressions: I was pretty surprised that they use ingredients like Becel, Higgins & Burke teas and other brands I have around my own kitchen.  I can’t believe that Ronald McDonald houses are full 365 nights a year.  The senior people have been there for years (And they’re skinny and totally proud to be working for McDonald’s.)  Some of the reaction to the program has been disparaging. I (and the other 2 English bloggers) have been slandered on Twitter for participating.  We were dubbed ‘rainforest killers’, deemed to be ‘pimping our kids for profit’, and it was decided that we are ‘going to hell’.  Ironically, the controversy and lack of intelligent discussion has made me pay even more attention to what I am learning.  Juxtaposed against the genuine openness of the McDonald’s staff, I must admit that I’m listening hard.

Here’s my first trip..

Day One:  Corporate Headquarters and restaurant tour in Toronto. After meeting with the senior executives of McDonald’s Canada, we toured a restaurant and saw the processes behind the counter.  Here’s the good and bad.  Good: freshness of food, efficiency of production, and the treatment of staff were amazing.  Food safety was extraordinary.  The cleaning schedule for the play area was impressive, as was the fact that the cleaning solutions are child and earth-friendly.  Bad: they need to compost and recycle more.  Sometimes food safety and efficiency took precedence over environmental issues.  (Such as dumping a stale salad in the garbage instead of putting the lettuce in a compost and recycling the container.)  Also bad: the highchairs.  They are wiped down, but never get ‘Mom-clean’.  At the Innovation Center we suggested they invent a new highchair design that can be more easily sanitized.

Day Two: Chicago.  Test Kitchen with Executive Chef Dan Coudreaut and then Hamburger University.  We made smoothies (recipe on UrbanMommies) which are currently available in the US and are offered at select restaurants in Canada. Smoothies will be offered in most Canadian restaurants later this year or early 2012. Dan and his team consider every ingredient when creating menu items.  No food is off-limits and they try things in creative combinations.  I asked about adding quinoa and different grains, and they had already experimented with many of the ingredients I was suggesting.  I was interested in the varying foods offered in different countries.  There are even kosher options in Jerusalem.

It was apparent that McDonald’s is a business and is run as such.  I thought the questions posed to Dan were pretty heated, and was really impressed with how they were handled.  The bottom line is that it is a business, and if the business felt that people really wanted whole wheat buns and veggie burgers, they would change the menu.  But the majority of the 28.5 million people who eat at McDonald’s in North America every day don’t want that.  In tests in Seattle and Boston, veggie burgers didn’t sell.  The customer is the focus, and there are constant trials and tests in the restaurants to determine what the customer wants.

It was announced in the US that the Happy Meal is being made healthier.  Changes will also be made to the Happy Meal program in Canada, but with Canada at a slightly different stage in menu evolution, the changes will not be the same as the US.  Canada had already introduced 1% milk in 2004, apple slices in 2006 and reduced-sodium grilled chicken snack wrap as a Happy Meal option in 2010.  The new Canadian Happy Meal platform will see the automatic inclusion of a 50g serving of yogurt along with a reduced portion of fries.  As before, apple slices can be substituted for the fries.    This brought us into long chats about happy meal ‘issues’.  I don’t buy happy meals often, as there are healthier choices on the menu. Parents have the money and make the decisions on what their children eat.

Hamburger University was cool.  I love that the credits people earn there can be applied to college programs and people earn degrees.

Day Three: The Innovation Center.  This is where things got interesting.  The Innovation Center, originally opened in 1995 as a 5000 sq. ft facility, is now a 5x larger, fully equipped facility where new products, cooking methods, computer systems and processes can be tested.  Any restaurant in the world can be ‘replicated’ – from the positions of the counters to the location of computer monitors and cooking stations. There are 30 patents that have come out of the facility. Teams of employees act as customers or servers and there is even a drive-through window.  On some days food is produced and others it isn’t.  On days when food is produced, some of it is discarded and some is consumed.  (French fries and anything with mayonnaise are not safe to keep).  Cheeseburgers, nuggets and other sandwiches are frozen and sent to the food bank twice each week.  For some readers this waste will be controversial.  The Innovation Center exists in order to make the more than 30 thousand McDonald’s restaurants more efficient, and to sacrifice a few French fries in one location in order to save millions of potatoes from being thrown out around the world?  I think it’s worth it.  This is just my opinion and I know that others do not share my view.

Overall?  I am glad I am participating.  I knew it would be controversial but I am happy for the questions and discussion from the parenting community.  In the end, we are all responsible adults and have control over what enters our body and those of our children.  I’m really glad that when I choose to eat at McDonald’s, I will have a better understanding about what is going into it.  I think the corporation needs improvement in a few areas, but I was impressed at how open they were to our suggestions and questions.


And So Begins The First All-Access Trip

EAT, family meals By July 24, 2011 Tags: , , , No Comments

After several child organizational challenges and lego mishaps at home, I headed to Toronto for the first McDonald’s All-Access Moms trip.  (We managed to find Luke Skywalker’s body, so I was free to travel without worry.)   It’s hard to pinpoint how I feel as I begin on this journey.  I’ve been busy with the press, and am so excited to dive into the program.  Questions are pouring in, and I’ve been gently schooled in societal issues all the way from farming protocols to the perils of eating too quickly.