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City & State or ZIP Tonight, this weekend, May 5th...
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City & State or ZIP Tonight, this weekend, May 5th...
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Sunday Column: Me and Mickey D’s

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Here is the column I wrote in response to the discussion that followed my post on McDonald’s.

When my editor and I began talking through the “30 Restaurants in 30 Days” project for my blog, I said that I wanted to pick as broad and as surprising a range of restaurants as I could. We started brainstorming, and I threw out the names of restaurants — French and Thai, in the city center and beyond its periphery, down home and exotic — that had piqued my interest recently. “What about McDonald’s?” I asked. My editor blinked.

Seriously. I was curious to try the fast-food chain’s new line of McCafé coffee drinks. If their lattes were less expensive than Starbucks and no worse, then I’d have some good, informed opinion to share.

“Are you going to get a burger, too?” asked my editor, thinking a cup of coffee wasn’t much of a blog post.

“I can’t,” I said, admitting that I’m way too wary of ground beef. I always ask about where the meat comes from before ordering a burger in any restaurant. Is it ground in house? Ground for the restaurant by a local meat supplier? Purchased as an 80 percent lean chuck in bulk? Purchased as a preformed patty?

For me it isn’t a matter of personal politics; it’s a matter of personal skeeze.

I’ve read enough about lax federal regulations regarding meat processing. One hamburger can contain meat commingled from hundreds of different animals from around the globe. It can be labeled “beef” and contain all manners of cow flesh, cow excrement and enough ammonia added to keep pathogens from a microscopic society as complex as Dr. Seuss’ Whoville.

I know there is plenty wrong with the food chain today, and I am more likely to get sick from bagged spinach irrigated with tainted water as I am from a mystery meat burger cooked to a safe and juiceless 165 degrees. I know that a fried chicken breast on a bun can be just as contaminated as beef, and that salmonella is a more widespread danger than E. coli poisoning.

But skeeze is skeeze. What mysteries lurk inside these pressed brown meat bits? Does anybody know?

Then again, I thought, maybe I should just get over it and have a burger.

I think the last time I ate a Big Mac, Hillary Clinton was picking out chintz for the East Wing. Yet I remember kind of liking this moist, squishy sandwich. I enjoy sloppy burgers made with thin patties and loads of toppings like you get at Grindhouse, Holeman & Finch and other places these days. Thin patties are back.

I figured I’d go to McDonald’s, get my coffee and get my burger, but also check to see if the staff had any answers for customers concerned about food safety and sourcing. They didn’t.

Alas, as soon as I opened the bun to add some ketchup, I looked at the grayish mass inside and couldn’t eat it. It’s irrational, I know. But I saw scenes of “Fast Food Nation” replay in my mind. Then I saw the wood chipper scene from “Fargo,” and all was lost.

So I blogged about the experience quickly and, I’ll admit, flippantly.

Anyone who read the comments on that blog post knows that I promptly had my top round handed to me on a platter.

Some readers thought the blog post was a fey attempt at gotcha journalism. I can see why they’d think that.

Some thought it sounded like I was harassing and abusing the staff by asking stupid, leading questions. That was not the case. At one branch of McDonald’s the staff and I had a nice, funny conversation. At another, I was referred politely to a manager.

Others simply thought I was acting like a pantywaist.

That may the most accurate criticism yet.

Skeeze is skeeze, and even food writers are susceptible to it.

Although I didn’t walk into McDonald’s with a political agenda, I left with one.

All restaurants should have a mechanism in place to discuss food safety and sourcing with customers if they ask. They could have a brochure. They could take down the certification from the wall. They could refer you to the Web site, which is where I did eventually learn that McDonald’s buys mostly American beef but also a small amount from Australia and New Zealand.

But if a restaurant doesn’t have an answer when all I do is ask, I don’t want to give them my business.

30 comments Add your comment

Jules Fredrick

November 29th, 2009
11:34 am

You are a very brave man. I feel about Mickey-D’s kinda like I feel about Walmart–not for me, thanks.
BTW-how was the coffee?
http://julesfredrick.wordpress.com/

Lisa

November 29th, 2009
12:07 pm

I like the fish sandwiches and I have NO idea why. Must be the squishy bun and the tartar sauce I don’t even like their fries any more. BUT they do have very good coffee.

D

November 29th, 2009
12:40 pm

I liked their original coffee a lot more, used to savor the extra large size.About once a year I get a craving only two cheeseburgers and a large fry and coke will satisfy. Once a year I can block the origins of the beef out of my mind.

William Herndon

November 29th, 2009
12:48 pm

Perhaps you didn’t go into McDonalds with a political agenda, but it does seem as if you had a personal agenda, if nothing else from your apparent fear of processed food.
I don’t feel that you could reasonably expect a restaurant worker, paid at the minimum wage to know much, if anything, about the workings of a huge corporation. May the mangers might know, maybe not. What you should expect is that the restaurant workers have been properly trained in the safe preparation of food on site.
Maybe McDonalds could do a better job in educating the public about its food safety program, and its supplier certification process. Maybe someone from McDonalds will read your article and learn something from it.
I have worked in the food manufacturing industry for 25 year, no I don’t work for McDonalds, but the company I work for is a supplier to McDonalds. I must say that of all the major fast food chains, McDonalds Quality Assurance program, and their Supplier Assessment Certification, is one best. They have a very formal documented program, and conduct very strict audits of all suppliers on a regular schedule.
Personally, from a food safety point of view, I would be mor3e comfortable eating at McDonalds, than some elite individual restaurant. The waiter at that elite restaurant make speak a good spiel on food safety, but do they actual have a formal program to back it up? I doubt it; they just can’t afford cost, like the big guys can.
IMHO.
PS: Wal-Mart has a pretty rigid supplier performance plan too.

Jack W. Hickey

November 29th, 2009
1:52 pm

John, you seem to have forgotten the initial reason for going to McDonalds. Wasn’t it “to try the fast-food chain’s new line of McCafe coffee drinks”? Why didn’t you provide your “expert” opinion on the coffee instead of taking 3 columns (and a picture) to share your bias against their hamburger? You got hung up on your personal feelings and lost track of the main product you were supposed to be evaluating. So, how was the coffee? It looked good in the picture but, that’s about all you gave us.

A Reader

November 29th, 2009
2:49 pm

Here is the thing. There are a lot of things on the menu that you could have ordered. But knowing that you have a “skeeze” against burgers, why did not not select something else? They have a wide varity of food including salads, parfaits, chicken sandwiches and “snack wrap”, breakfast items, and their fries are arguably the best around. So why order something that you know you cannot consume? It would be as if a Muslim or Jew went into a BBQ joint and ordered a pulled pork sandwich and then blogged about they just could not bring themselves to consume it. It is ludicrous.

dg

November 29th, 2009
4:33 pm

If this is what you wrote after the blog post, where is the blog post?

Christy

November 29th, 2009
4:56 pm

And the McCafe’ coffee drinks? Wasn’t that the purpose of the visit? Side-tracked? (And I think you went just a tad overboard on your ‘burger fright’. Come on.)

davo

November 29th, 2009
5:02 pm

I know how you feel; I wanted to work at the post office but I was afraid of paper-cuts.

Don’t be such a pvssy; and please, I don’t care about your politics. Stick to the food, the service, the decor and the price…that’s what a food critic does.

D

November 29th, 2009
5:58 pm

OMG, first the Mary Mac’s melee, now the McDonald’s melee. Give JK a break. Mr. Herndon, I feel a lot better having read your post, now I can get my fix a lot more often ! Does anybody remember when Wendy’s first came to the ATL metro & the rumor was spread that their burgers were made of ground worms? It was years before I could eat there. Given all the info we get these days , I can sympathize with JK’s “politics” !

Art

November 29th, 2009
7:03 pm

John, for someone who likes to dine at a lot of places where one counts the cats outside before they go in and makes sure the number is the same after they leave, I was a bit surprised when I first read your Mickey D’s initial blog and your rant on the lineage of their beef… After many years of feeding my occasional Double Cheeseburger craze, I had never really thought about “where’s the beef” (come from) and your hesitancy caused me to rethink my lack thereof. That said, I was disappointed that you didn’t eat the burger… particularly because you tend to show much more bravado on Buford highway and… after all, Mickey D’s is famous for some pretty big out-of-court settlements… In the end, I gave you a pass and moved on… You write something that I seek out each and every day and that provides me with a lot of “food for thought”…. So you go ahead and check your mystery meat as much as you like and I’ll keep reading and writing all the same… Everyone has their little thangs!

sansho1

November 29th, 2009
10:33 pm

As to McCafe, I found myself hooked on their iced coffee about a month ago. Delicious and affordable. Then one day I saw it being made — six ounces of cream! No wonder it was so delicious! So I chugged that one and haven’t gone back….

Cathy

November 29th, 2009
10:46 pm

What did you think of the iced coffee? I read your article to get your feedback on their coffee drinks. Thanks –

Darin

November 30th, 2009
10:07 am

Here’s what John K wrote in the previous McDonald’s column about the coffee (found by typing ‘McDonalds’ in the search box above):

“The lightly sweetened cappuccino is bitter and flat tasting, but has a little bubbly froth to perk it up. Still, it’s no better than the coffee from the fancy-coffee machine at work.”

After my own single experience with the McD’s cappuccino, I suggest requesting lightly sweetened unless you want a brain-melting sugar bomb to explode in your mouth with the first sip. Basically, when I just asked for a cappuccino what I got was a hot, frothy cup of sweetener with a slight coffee aftertaste.

John Kessler

November 30th, 2009
10:16 am

Yes, and sorry! I always forget that print readers don’t often follow the blog, so they don’t see the antecedent. I did fine the cappuccino bitter and very flat without sweetener. A fully-sweetened mocha was better, but waaaaaaay sweet. I’ve heard from friends that the iced coffees are the way to go at McD’s, though Sansho’s experience warns me off.
And, again, re: the hamburger: I’m just trying to be transparent on this. I really did order it thinking I’d eat it. In retrospect, I think I’d have been much better with one of those chicken wrap thingamabobbers.
Interesting conversation with family over Thanksgiving about it. Half of those around the table wouldn’t touch ground beef from a fast food restaurant, the other half thought we were being stupid. I think there is a fault line…

yubyub

November 30th, 2009
1:30 pm

Mickey Ds? I’m loving it…

Liz

November 30th, 2009
9:30 pm

not to jump on the bash JK band wagon or anything, but i think you are a lot braver to go into some of the restaurants you have raved about. almost every time i see an article about failing health inspection scores it is almost always some little hole in the wall, a lot of time it is foreign cuisine. i very rarely see any major chain, least of all mickey d’s on there, i used to work at mickey d’s and unlike some of the places i have worked i will still eat there without any concern. you dont get to be a multimillion dollar conglomerate serving hundreds of millions of people everyday, all over the world, by being slack. if just one shipment was contaminated thousands would be affected and you can believe it would totally make the news, if there is any one thing mickey d’s does not play about it is food safety.

Les duLunch

November 30th, 2009
10:45 pm

What a number of people here don’t seem to understand is that skeeze doesn’t have to be logical or make sense. A friend of mine (a cop) has walked into situations fully expecting to be shot at but will not give blood because he is terrified of needles. Doesn’t make sense, does it? Doesn’t to him either, but that doesn’t change the fact that needles freak him out.

altmod

December 1st, 2009
6:00 am

Hi John,
Your Mickey D’s post reminded me that I wanted to contact you to get your thoughts (hopefully on your blog) about meat. I’ve been running into more and more people who have become what I would call Food Inc-ers. They are moving toward vegetarian (preferably organics, and local foods) offerings and seeking “happy meat” (not to be confused with Happy Meals). Truly, I’ve met many folks like this who have eaten meat all their lives and are now questioning the origins of their meat ( and making Food Inc. choices. At dinner last night a group of us were talking about the new BBQ restaurant (Community), mouths watering. Then the question came up again–”I wonder if they use ‘happy meat’?” (hormone-free, non-factory farmed). This raised the question of whether there were places using “happy meat” that just didn’t advertise (that could be eaten with less guilt or eaten at all). Obviously places like Cakes and Ale, etc. buy their meats non-factory, but who else? And how expensive is it to switch (YDFM sells it after all). How hard is it (or realistic) for the average restaurant to go “non-factory farmed” meat? There seem to be so many of us that are having to exist on vegetarian sides in order to stick to new principles regarding our meat, our mouths watering. . . . We’d be happy to eat the meat if we knew it was raised safely and humanely. I, for one, can’t get the images of the chickens with gigantic engineered breasts (so big they can’t move around) out of my head. I miss my chicken fingers. Could you blog on this?

John Kessler

December 1st, 2009
12:09 pm

Thanks for the thoughtful comments, all.
Les: My sentiments exactly.
altmod: Have you been to Chipotle? They manage to use hormone-free and naturally raised meats and still charge a decent price. I’m a big fan.

JIMBOB

December 1st, 2009
12:59 pm

Sansho,

I had one of the coffee drinks one time. They can tweak the formula. Too much cream? Request half as much cream as normal and a little more coffee.

If anything, the McD’s employee making it will be less apt to take it as an affront to his/her ego than an employee at an official ‘coffee shop’.

Haven’t had their burger lately, but it fills a niche. We had ‘flip’ burgers a few days ago. It was good, but I still think Ted’s bison burger is as good as any of them.

Inka

December 1st, 2009
1:57 pm

lol lol …what a pompous joker you are J.K….
even Warren Buffet eats at MC D’s….

Ramona P

December 1st, 2009
4:28 pm

John Kessler,
You are my favorite food writer, but you missed the bus on this one. Not wanting to eat a hamburger at McDonald’s came across as an out-of-touch food snob. The vast majority of Atlantans eats at fast food restaurants. We aren’t on an expense account to eat at fabulous restaurants where the meat is processed in-house. That thought is far removed from the reality of most of our lives.
Still your fan,
Ramona

sansho1

December 1st, 2009
9:54 pm

JIMBOB — you’re right, I should do that. The service at the Shamrock Plaza Mickey D’s is better than I’ve gotten at some nice restaurants, I mean that.

C

December 1st, 2009
10:43 pm

this did miss the mark, 90% of atlantans consider MDs a good meal at a nice restaurant. And btw, coffee and a burger? yes I suppose that would be the appropriate level of taste for an ajc food writer. Reading another readers comment (Ramona P) I have to agree, you know exactly what McDonald’s is and what kind of restaurant it’s franchises are. Refusing a burger of unknown provenance at some trend-eatery is one thing, this on the another hand is gotcha journalism. Super-size anyone?

John Kessler

December 2nd, 2009
12:02 pm

Thanks for the thoughtful comments. Ramona, I really never want to come off as a snob, but I can see how I did. Again, my agenda (if you can call it such) is laid out in the column. Probably should have stuck to my original plan to do the coffee roundup, but I do find this discussion interesting. C – do you really think 90% of Atlantans consider MD’s a nice restaurant?
I did get this interesting email from a friend. Grey meat for grey matter (i.e., food for thought):

Just read your Mickey D’s blog post and saw the item about beef from New Zealand. During my cycling trip there, I remember a commercial touting that all the food served was locally produced, and I was shocked that it was a McDonald’s commercial. Clearly, they do understand that an audience cares where the food comes from, but that audience isn’t in the United States!

Victoria Elder

December 2nd, 2009
1:17 pm

Even though Julia Childs like McDonalds, I am SO with John on this issue of ground beef. Probably have not bought it over 15 years. I used to pick out a chuck roast, hand it to the guys at the meat counter & ask them to grind it. However, it is getting harder and harder to get this done in our chain grocery stores. Now I go to Food Lion in Smyrna where they ground their chuck on site and boy can you tell it! Very lean, not watery, no fillers and tastes great. It is also very inexpensive!

The New York Times article - ground beef includes disgusting stuff called "trimmings"

December 2nd, 2009
4:23 pm

Excerpts from The New York Times article (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/13/us/13ecoli.html):
A deadly outbreak of E. coli has been traced to a large producer of ground beef that stopped testing its ingredients years ago under pressure from beef suppliers.

The New York Times reported last month in an article about a surge in E. coli outbreaks in ground beef, which have now reached 18 since 2007, that the beef trimmings commonly used to make ground beef are more susceptible to contamination because the pathogen thrives in cattle feces that can get smeared on the surfaces of whole cuts of meat.

But while slaughterhouses seek to limit such contamination, and conduct their own testing for the pathogen, they have resisted independent testing by grinders for fear that it would cause expanded recalls. The retail giant Costco, which makes its own ground beef, has been one of the few retailers to insist on such testing by its grinding facility as an added consumer protection.

The United States Department of Agriculture, which banned the deadly E. coli strain known as 0157:H7 in 1994, has encouraged — but does not require — meat companies to test their products for the pathogen. In the absence of such a rule, meat companies have adopted varied practices.

Like most ground beef producers, Fairbank Farms uses multiple suppliers of trimmings, and the limits of its finished product testing became apparent in 2007 when it found E. coli in its ground beef and could not determine which of the trim suppliers had been the source.

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/13/us/13ecoli.html

Read The New York Times article and find out what ground (Angus included) beef patties have in them - trimmings treated with ammonia and other disgusting things

December 2nd, 2009
4:38 pm

Woman’s Shattered Life Shows Ground Beef Inspection Flaws

…Ground beef is usually not simply a chunk of meat run through a grinder. Instead, records and interviews show, a single portion of hamburger meat is often an amalgam of various grades of meat from different parts of cows and even from different slaughterhouses. These cuts of meat are particularly vulnerable to E. coli contamination, food experts and officials say. Despite this, there is no federal requirement for grinders to test their ingredients for the pathogen.

The frozen hamburgers that the Smiths ate, which were made by the food giant Cargill, were labeled “American Chef’s Selection Angus Beef Patties.” Yet confidential grinding logs and other Cargill records show that the hamburgers were made from a mix of slaughterhouse trimmings and a mash-like product derived from scraps that were ground together at a plant in Wisconsin. The ingredients came from slaughterhouses in Nebraska, Texas and Uruguay, and from a South Dakota company that processes fatty trimmings and treats them with ammonia to kill bacteria.

Using a combination of sources — a practice followed by most large producers of fresh and packaged hamburger — allowed Cargill to spend about 25 percent less than it would have for cuts of whole meat.

Those low-grade ingredients are cut from areas of the cow that are more likely to have had contact with feces, which carries E. coli, industry research shows. Yet Cargill, like most meat companies, relies on its suppliers to check for the bacteria and does its own testing only after the ingredients are ground together. The United States Department of Agriculture, which allows grinders to devise their own safety plans, has encouraged them to test ingredients first as a way of increasing the chance of finding contamination.

Unwritten agreements between some companies appear to stand in the way of ingredient testing. Many big slaughterhouses will sell only to grinders who agree not to test their shipments for E. coli, according to officials at two large grinding companies. Slaughterhouses fear that one grinder’s discovery of E. coli will set off a recall of ingredients they sold to others.

“Ground beef is not a completely safe product,” said Dr. Jeffrey Bender, a food safety expert at the University of Minnesota who helped develop systems for tracing E. coli contamination. He said that while outbreaks had been on the decline, “unfortunately it looks like we are going a bit in the opposite direction.”

Food scientists have registered increasing concern about the virulence of this pathogen since only a few stray cells can make someone sick, and they warn that federal guidance to cook meat thoroughly and to wash up afterward is not sufficient. A test by The Times found that the safe handling instructions are not enough to prevent the bacteria from spreading in the kitchen.

…Stephanie Smith, a children’s dance instructor, thought she had a stomach virus. The aches and cramping were tolerable that first day, and she finished her classes.

Then her diarrhea turned bloody. Her kidneys shut down. Seizures knocked her unconscious. The convulsions grew so relentless that doctors had to put her in a coma for nine weeks. When she emerged, she could no longer walk. The affliction had ravaged her nervous system and left her paralyzed.

Ms. Smith, 22, was found to have a severe form of food-borne illness caused by E. coli, which Minnesota officials traced to the hamburger that her mother had grilled for their Sunday dinner in early fall 2007.

…In making hamburger meat, grinders aim for a specific fat content — 26.6 percent in the lot that Ms. Smith’s patty came from, company records show. To offset Greater Omaha’s 50/50 trimmings, Cargill added leaner material from three other suppliers. Records show that some came from a Texas slaughterhouse, Lone Star Beef Processors, which specializes in dairy cows and bulls too old to be fattened in feedlots. In a form letter dated two days before Ms. Smith’s patty was made, Lone Star recounted for Cargill its various safety measures but warned “to this date there is no guarantee for pathogen-free raw material and we would like to stress the importance of proper handling of all raw products.”

Ms. Smith’s burger also contained trimmings from a slaughterhouse in Uruguay, where government officials insist that they have never found E. coli O157:H7 in meat. Yet audits of Uruguay’s meat operations conducted by the U.S.D.A. have found sanitation problems, including improper testing for the pathogen. Dr. Hector J. Lazaneo, a meat safety official in Uruguay, said the problems were corrected immediately. “Everything is fine, finally,” he said. “That is the reason we are exporting.”

Cargill’s final source was a supplier that turns fatty trimmings into what it calls “fine lean textured beef.” The company, Beef Products Inc., said it bought meat that averages between 50 percent and 70 percent fat, including “any small pieces of fat derived from the normal breakdown of the beef carcass.” It warms the trimmings, removes the fat in a centrifuge and treats the remaining product with ammonia to kill E. coli.

With seven million pounds produced each week, the company’s product is widely used in hamburger meat sold by grocers and fast-food restaurants and served in the federal school lunch program. Ten percent of Ms. Smith’s burger came from Beef Products, which charged Cargill about $1.20 per pound, or 20 cents less than the lean trimmings in the burger, billing records show.

In combining the ingredients, Cargill was following a common industry practice of mixing trim from various suppliers to hit the desired fat content for the least money, industry officials said.

In all, the ingredients for Ms. Smith’s burger cost Cargill about $1 a pound, company records show, or about 30 cents less than industry experts say it would cost for ground beef made from whole cuts of meat.

The New York Times
10/3/09
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/04/health/04meat.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1&ref=us

JIMBOB

December 3rd, 2009
2:11 pm

On Saturday I bought a chuck roast at Publix and had them double grind it. Was not a problem. I don’t know of any chain that has any problem doing this.

The chuck cost about 5.60 something, and made 5 decent sized patties. I was surprised that they shrunk very little. I’m thinking that all pre-ground meats at the grocery store are bloated with extra fat they dump into the grinder.

I’ve also bought a tenderloin at costco before, trimmed it (sliced off the fat and silverskin), and ground up the ‘chain’ into 2 good patties. It’s a big money saver, but it takes a while to get the tenderloin looking good. My pet peeve is being served a steak where no one bothered to trim the fat/silverskin off of it.