[Cross-posted with ActiveHistory.ca]

Walking out of the subway into Yonge Station in Toronto recently, I was confronted with poster after poster bearing some strange, slightly off-putting questions about McDonald’s. These included, in big bold letters, messages like: “Is the meat fake?” “Are there eyeballs put in your meat?” Or, “Are McNuggets made from processed pink sludge?

In the end, it was the presence of other posters assuring me that McDonald’s burgers and McNuggets are made of only recognizable cuts of the chicken or cow that finally tipped me off that the posters were, in fact, part of a McDonald’s ad campaign and not some kind of PETA-inspired anti-McDonald’s stunt. The question still remained, though: who thought this was a good idea? Like the recent Domino’s “Pizza Turnaround” campaign that bizarrely admitted that their food had been terrible for years (but was, supposedly, fine now), these ads seemed to remind commuters of the many reasons they’d likely developed over the years — both ridiculous and practical — not to eat at McDonald’s. What was going on here?

My search for answers eventually led me to the fascinating website yourquestions.mcdonalds.ca where, apparently, Canadians can submit questions like those plastered around Yonge Station and, within a few days, they’ll be answered by someone at McDonald’s and posted for the world to see. Initially launched this summer, the website currently contains hundreds of questions and answers that, it turns out, provide a fascinating glimpse into Canadians’ complicated relationship with their fast food and, perhaps more interestingly, McDonald’s ongoing and often failed attempts to deal with its own McHistory.

This campaign was likely spurred primarily by Canadians’ growing unease with the safety of their industrial food supply following years of public health scares and industry deregulation.  E-coli, listeriosis, mad cow disease, and ammonia-treated pink slime are just some of the more recent dire news stories.  Yet I was immediately struck by how many of the questions being asked had the effect of transporting me back to my childhood. It seems, apparently, that “Your Questions” are largely the same ones that my 10 year-old self would have asked McDonald’s and, to this end, they include their fair share crackpot theories, terrible grammar, and unsubstantiated urban legends. Does, for instance, McDonald’s buy their beef from a company called 100% beef? What is the ratio of mealworm to beef in the patties? Does McDonald’s use anti-vomiting agents in its beef? Is it true that the food simply won’t rot because of all the preservatives used? Or, my personal favourite, “are your food edible”(sic)?

The prominence of these urban legends, in particular, highlights the burden of McDonald’s long and checkered history at the forefront of fast-food technology. McDonald’s, after all, perfected the adoption of scientific management to the restaurant business, with its assembly line production techniques setting the stage for the dramatic expansion of the fast-food landscape in the 1950s and 1960s. McDonald’s also pioneered the use of industrial food technologies to cut costs and to bring the predictable, uniform flavours, textures, and smells that are key to McDonald’s global business model.

But while nearly all of the crackpot theories my 10-year-old self firmly believed about McDonald’s have clearly never been true, some of the urban legend-esque questions that appear time and time again on the website are actually based more in fact than some of the company’s answers might have you believe. Many of the questions, for instance, ask whether there’s beef or pork in the fries. While McDonald’s responds that its fries are, indeed, 100 percent vegetarian, consumers might be forgiven in believing that there might be meat in the fries. McDonald’s, in fact, truly did use an oil mixture that was mostly beef tallow until a growing public outcry led them to change to a mostly vegetable oil mixture in 1990. Yet, even after this change, vegetarian and religious groups successfully sued McDonalds’ for continuing to use beef flavouring in its supposedly vegetarian fries.

The ‘pink slime’ story might be a more recent one, but it shares some similarities with the ‘meat in the fries’ questions. Pink slime — or, as the meat processing industry calls it, “lean finely textured beef” or LFTB — is actually a paste-like product made from beef trimmings previously considered to be unsafe for human consumption that have been disinfected with ammonium hydroxide. When added to other ground meats, it could be used as a cheap filler that would enable companies to lower the cost of burgers, sausages, and other products destined for the fast food industry. But when American consumers recently learned that many restaurants, including McDonalds, were using pink slime as an ingredient in their burgers, the public responded with revulsion and, in January 2012, McDonalds USA announced that they would discontinue the use of LFTB.

While the many, many questions about pink slime on the Your Questions website are answered with the response that pink slime has never been used in Canadian burgers, it is not typically mentioned that, in fact, this is largely because LFTB has never been approved for human consumption in this country in the first place. But is there any reason to doubt that, if it had been approved in Canada, McDonald’s would have used it in their burgers like they had been south of the border? The company’s entire business model, after all, is not based on serving the freshest or most natural food.  Rather, it serves a familiar product as fast as possible, at the lowest per-unit cost, and in a way that enables the company to produce a consistent Big Mac –  across Canada and the globe.

A big part of this massive, global success has been the result of the company’s historical willingness to embrace new technologies. Whether it was frozen French fries in the 1960s or the development of the novel pieces of reconstituted and fried chicken meat that later became known as Chicken McNuggets in the 1980s, McDonald’s has a history of industrial food innovation. Even so-called ‘classic’ McDonald’s menu items like the Big Mac are the products of a profoundly complex system of both industrial meat production and distribution, not to mention the careful application of the chemistry of flavour, texture, smell, and ‘mouthfeel’ to every part of the burger.

While the meat patty in a Big Mac, for instance, undoubtedly is just ground beef with salt, pepper and “grill seasoning” that the company lists in its Ingredient Facts booklet, the actual components that make it taste, smell and feel like an authentic Big Mac are much more complicated. (Have you ever tried to eat just a McDonald’s patty? If you have, you’ll know what I mean.) The bun alone contains the following ingredients:

Enriched wheat flour, water, high fructose corn syrup and/or glucose-fructose and/or sugar, yeast, vegetable oil (soybean and/or canola), salt, sesame seeds, calcium sulphate, calcium propionate, monoglycerides, enzymes, azodicarbonamide, AND MAY CONTAIN ANY OR ALL OF THE FOLLOWING IN VARYING PROPORTIONS: diacetyl tartaric acid esters of mono and diglycerides, BHT, sodium stearoyl-2-lactylate, wheat starch, calcium peroxide, wheat gluten, sorbitol, dextrin, malted barley flour, ascorbic acid, citric acid, calcium stearate, calcium iodate, silicon dioxide.

This long, largely impenetrable list of ingredients perhaps best indicates the reasons why the Your Questions campaign won’t eliminate consumers’ suspicions that something strange lurks in their McNuggets and Big Macs. While McDonalds has been careful to make sure that the meat itself comes from recognizable cuts of chicken and beef, their entire business model depends on the use of ingredients that — while less immediately disgusting — are still somewhat off-putting. Are you really confident that you want to be consuming calcium iodate, silicon dioxide, BHT, and diacetyl tartaric acid esters of mono and diglycerides? For the vast majority of us who aren’t food scientists, this is a difficult question and one that, unsurprisingly, makes many consumers quite suspicious.

Mealworms and eyeballs in the meat, in other words, are simply metaphors for our unease about an industrial food system that McDonald’s has both pioneered and, in many ways, perfected over more than 50 years of McHistory. That the company continues to thrive, despite what the Your Questions website suggests is the persistence of an apparently profound public skepticism of its trustworthiness, simply highlights just how successful this industrial transformation of our diets and tastes has truly become.

For further reading:

Levenstein, Harvey. Paradox of Plenty: A Social History of Eating in Modern America. Berkley: University of California Press, 1993.

Penfold, Steve. “Selling by the Carload: The Early Years of Fast Food in Canada.” In Creating Postwar Canada: Community, Diversity, and Dissent, 1945-1975, edited by R. Rutherdale and M. Fahrni. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2008.

Pollan, Michael. The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. 1st ed. Penguin Books, 2007.

Reiter, Esther. Making Fast Food: From the Frying Pan into the Fryer. Montreal-Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1996.

Schlosser, Eric. Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2001.