My last tour as part of the McDonald’s All-Access Moms program was in two parts, each distinctly McDonald’s, but completely separate in terms of what I was preparing myself to see, learn, and come away with.
Part of the last tour included a visit to a local Ronald McDonald House – the House we visited was the Ronald McDonald House Southwestern Ontario, located in London, Ontario. I had not visited a Ronald McDonald House before that day, but like most of us, I was familiar with the charity, its purpose, and how at least some of the fundraising is done.
The purpose of a Ronald McDonald House, of which a significant portion of funding comes from the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Canada, is simple: to provide a little bit of normalcy when a family’s life has been turned upside down by a child’s illness.
I have been fortunate that my children have never been hospitalized and most certainly have never encountered the situation of having my child sent to a bigger centre for treatment so they’re not even near home. I’m not sure what we’d do in that situation, since we live far from extended family and are a family of five. How does a family cope when a little one is sick and has to be sent an hour away to a hospital? Who stays with the sick child? I don’t even know how we’d figure that out but after visiting a Ronald McDonald House and learning a bit more about it, I feel better knowing there’s a caring charity there to help.
The Ronald McDonald House Southwestern Ontario was recently renovated and now has 34 rooms for families to stay in, almost double the capacity they could previously accommodate. When we arrived, it was early December and the House was already decorated for the holidays. The House exuded a warm feeling right from the lobby. When your child is sick, having comfort is so important (especially when hospitals offer such a sterile, chilled, environment).
The layout of the House was not created by chance. On the main floor there are several seating areas, but each within its own small, comfortable, nook so families can sit together without having to sit with everyone else… unless of course they want to! In various areas throughout the House you will find a desk with computer, so families can check email and contact friends and family while still keeping an eye on the kids. The room shown above within the glass door is for young children, with a computer station right outside (the moms on the tour commented that we all need a set up like this in our own houses)!
The House, complete with a media room for movies, treasure chest room with special surprises, a room for older kids with a foosball table, gaming systems and more, has everything a family could possibly need when away from home and dealing with a little one’s sickness.
After touring the House I felt so positive about this charitable organization and how it helps families and will undoubtedly be referring people to a Ronald McDonald House should any of my friends or family have sick children in the hospital.
That prompted a question from all of us. How does a family become guests at Ronald McDonald House Southwestern Ontario? The answer? You simply call and ask. Bookings cannot be confirmed in advance (for example if your child has a set surgery date) because they simply cannot judge the need for rooms at a certain time. But all it takes is a phone call by yourself or by hospital staff for the medical referral to make arrangements for you and yours in a time of need.
Of course, once you visit and stay at the House, as wonderful as it is, you certainly don’t want to return anytime soon. The reality for many families, however, is that they return to the Ronald McDonald House in their area more often than they’d like.
We had the utmost privilege of meeting members of a family dealing with the heartbreaking battle of childhood leukemia. George and his youngest daughter Nadine sat down with us at the House and George shared his story about his eldest daughter who has been battling leukemia since the age of 5. Off and on for the past 5 years they have been staying at the London Ronald McDonald House when in the city for treatment (they live 2 hours away in Windsor).
Their story really made the gift of what the Ronald McDonald House does for families all the more real. While George appreciates everything they have done for his family, he does not want to return to the House again; but right now that possibility is there. I hope for the family’s sake that they never have to return to a Ronald McDonald House again, if only to stop by and say thank you to the staff with their healthy, cured, daughter.
The next time my local McDonald’s restaurant celebrates McHappy Day, which will be held on May 2 this year, I will make sure I participate and will be asking my friends to do so as well. This year on McHappy Day $1 from every Big Mac, Happy Meal and hot McCafé beverage sold goes to local children’s charities, like Ronald McDonald House Charities across Canada. Additionally, any time you purchase a Happy Meal in Canada, 10 cents from each meal goes to Ronald McDonald House Charities as well. And because McDonald’s pays all of the administration costs of Ronald McDonald House Charities, 100 cents from every dollar donated goes to support the Ronald McDonald Houses.
I intend to contact the local Ronald McDonald House in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan to introduce myself and hopefully come for a tour. I also want to find out what they need and how I can help this charity locally. This recent tour has reminded me how fortunate my family is and prompted me to find ways to give to a charity that does so much for others. While good karma through giving may only take me so far, there’s just no way to know if one day we will be in need of a room at a Ronald McDonald House. I sure hope not – but if that situation came about, I’d know I could count on this charity to give me strength, comfort, and a roof over our head when we need it most.
We were introduced to our first Ronald McDonald House in London, Ontario on our final All-Access Trip. With 12 Ronald McDonald Houses across Canada, 309 around the globe and plans for 2 more in Canada located in Red Deer and St John’s, the scope of this charity is huge.
I was embarrassed that I only knew a few things to begin – like 10 cents from every Happy Meal goes to the charity, and that families stay there when their child is ill and hospitalized. The amount I didn’t know, and had trouble imagining, was what changed my perspective on life more than anything else in the McDonald’s All-Access Moms Program. Meeting real people in crisis is a powerful thing. People with real stories, pain, and incredible strength. I hope that my involvement with the charity is limited to volunteering, and I pray that I will never be one of the 10,000 Canadian families per year who become residents in one of the houses.
Just imagine being a parent of a child with leukemia when your spouse has to stay at home working. Imagine being a 4-year-old sibling of a sick child who doesn’t understand why Christmas isn’t happening this year like normal. Imagine being a Mother who spends every waking moment at a hospital with no time to cook or do laundry. The doctor’s visits when there is bad news, or when there is good news and hope. Imagine just for a second and then push it out of your mind. Ronald McDonald House exists in order to give families the gift of time. As Margaret, the executive director at the Ronald McDonald House in London uttered: “We can’t buy the children time, but we can give it away.” The gift of preparing hot meals, dealing with Christmas shopping, laundry and expenses can allow families to spend precious time together as a unit.
Here’s what I didn’t know:
1. The first Ronald McDonald House opened in Philadelphia in 1974.
2. New initiatives for the charity include Ronald McDonald Family Rooms in hospitals and Ronald McDonald Care Mobiles which may be used to travel to inner cities or remote areas where there are limited resources. The 40 x 8 feet mobile vehicles are specially designed to deliver pediatric health care services, where children need it most.
3. McDonalds underwrites the salaries and all expenses of Ronald McDonald House Charities Canada employees so that 100 percent of dollars raised go back to the Houses. This is very rare.
4. The (Canadian) federal and (Ontario) provincial governments have supported the Houses through capital funding as well. Recently, the Infrastructure Stimulus Funding program parceled out over 22 million to renovate and increase the number of rooms in the Toronto, Hamilton and London facilities.
5. The family dinner program is a crucial component of daily life for families using the Houses. Individuals from the community are able to sign up to donate food, time and cooking skills to make a dinner for the House. The value to families is immense. After a long day at the hospital, parents and siblings get a home cooked meal that they don’t have to prepare or fund. And volunteers can see the immediate impact of their efforts as they dine with the grateful families.
6. Although it’s not completely free to stay, thanks to the support of their sponsors, Ronald McDonald House families pay on average only $11 per day though no family is ever turned away due to an inability to pay.
7. Despite the increase in beds and space for families with children in hospitals, the Ronald McDonald House in London in particular has an occupancy rate of 86 per cent. Wow!
8. $37 million has been raised since 2004 from Happy Meals alone. That’s ten cents at a time. You can do the math. I’m kind of inept with decimals…
9. Spaces in the London House include: 5 computers with internet access, a toddler playroom, children’s library, play space for 6-12 year-olds, teenage room, fitness centre and a home theatre room. The different areas and nooks within the house allow families privacy and encourage them to live their lives as normally as possible. The respect for the individuals is immense. Families have their own locked cupboards in the kitchen in case the kids will only eat nutella or mac and cheese. Tupperware and bags are readily on-hand if families would prefer to eat later or take their dinner back to the hospital. My favourite place was the treasure chest. This room is very special and has a magical effect on the children that stay at the House. But I can’t say anymore…I’ve been sworn to secrecy by the pirates.
10. There is a section in many Houses, just as welcoming as the other rooms, where families whose children are immune-compromised can stay, in order to further prevent the spread of germs to these children.
I used to volunteer for many organizations and since having had kids I have struggled to incorporate charity into my life. I have now found a place I can put down roots and show the kids what it means both for us and families in need to help. Whether we cook a meal, take unwrapped toys to help siblings adjust to their temporary surroundings, donate some Tupperware containers or teach a tap dance class in the House to help release some stress. I want to incorporate this charity into my life with my kids. I keep thinking more creatively about how I can use my unique talents to help – donating time and talents are just as valuable as contributing money. I took my boys to our local Ronald McDonald House yesterday to deliver toys. They met many children and played, hugged and laughed. For many, I think the friendship was a more powerful gift than the toys.
“A beautiful place I never want to see again” was a comment I overheard at the opening of the new Ronald McDonald House Toronto. It is so true.
My first introduction to the Ronald McDonald House was 8 years ago when a friends’ baby arrived 9 weeks early. The family found themselves at a hospital with a new baby far away from their home. The Ronald McDonald House provided them a home away from home when they needed it most.
I recently visited the new House in Toronto, which is the largest Ronald McDonald House in the world, with rooms for 81 families. While I was in London, Ontario with the McDonald’s All-Access Moms for our final trip, we had the privilege of being invited to visit the local Ronald McDonald House there as well. The Ronald McDonald House of Southwestern Ontario recently underwent a renovation and expansion too and can now accommodate twice as many families as they could before.
We also had the chance to speak with a family who was staying at the House. Their true appreciation for everything that the Ronald McDonald Houses and their volunteers provide was made painfully clear.
The Ronald McDonald Houses strive to provide as much normalcy as they can in a time of stress, fear and pain for families like the one we met, whose nine year-old daughter is battling leukemia. We spoke with her father, George, and little sister about their experience while the mother sat at the hospital with their sick child.
George explained how his family has stayed at the Ronald McDonald House many times over the past 5 years that their child has been sick. He also explained that staying for weeks at a time in a hotel would be an added financial stress for many families, on top of everything else they are dealing with.
The Ronald McDonald Houses provide everything from meals cooked by volunteers, to kitchens with everything the family needs to be able to prepare their own meals and areas to store their own food. The Cargill employees we met prepare dinner meals for the families staying at the House four nights every month. The House provides clean and calmly decorated rooms, similar to hotel rooms, and some have their own kitchens as well. They provide play areas for kids who may be outpatients or the siblings of the ill child. Ronald McDonald House Toronto has a school that is recognized by the Ministry of Education with teachers who can teach children from Kindergarten to Grade 12 so they don’t fall behind while away from school. The school is beautiful and more high-tech than I would have expected, complete with a computer lab and a digital whiteboard.
I learned that, although McDonald’s provides good financial support to the Ronald McDonald Houses, it is only a portion of the overall donations required. Many other corporations have been inspired to help the Ronald McDonald House in their local community as well, which each individual House depends on to stay open and functioning. The kitchen in the Ronald McDonald House in London is sponsored by Cargill and the recreation room in Ronald McDonald House Toronto is named for the Jays Care Foundation. Even the elevator and house-keeping rooms have been named. It is really great to see so many large corporations working together to provide a beautiful space that I hope never to need, but I’m very glad is there to help those when they do.
This was my first time visiting a Ronald McDonald House, and I was so touched by what it represented. Ronald McDonald House affords families of children who are seriously ill a place to stay while their children are being treated at nearby children’s hospitals. For many, this is a home away from home where warm, welcoming staff have helped bring them peace and comfort.
We had the honour of visiting a newly renovated House in London Ontario, located next to the local children’s hospital. No detail has been overlooked – the entire home feels fresh, bright and is beautifully decorated. There’s a play room any child (big or small) would love, and a great room where families can spend time together or chat with other guests. Sitting rooms are provided for quiet thought or reflection, and there is also a kitchen that any chef would envy. Did I mention guests can fix their own food or just help themselves to the food that’s prepared by volunteers for them daily?
During our visit, we met many of the staff and volunteers that keep this place running on a day-to-day basis. Not only do these people cook and clean but they lend a hand wherever possible, and most importantly wipe away tears and provide comfort to the guests. These people are truly the backbones of this charity, and they do it all with so much love and compassion. The opportunity to chat with the father of a terminally ill daughter taught me just how important this charity is. He stressed that without the RMH his family wouldn’t have had the time or resources to travel between Windsor and London, which ultimately would have prevented him from spending time with his sick daughter.
I’m ashamed to admit I knew little about the Ronald McDonald Houses before our visit but I’m happy to say I’ve learned so much, and have added them to my list of preferred charities. Helping out can be as simple as buying a Happy Meal. Ten cents from every Happy Meal sold goes towards funding this worthy cause. This was by far the most memorable experience I’ve had on the tour, and for me it’s a great to end it on such a positive note!
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, the facility has been audited and Temple Grandin has approved of the process itself. For details on the beef visit please click here. 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 UrbanMommies Q and A please click here.
Where do I start when writing this post? Unlike our previous McDonald’s All-Access Moms tour to the Cargill Beef Facility in Spruce Grove, Alberta, this time we were visiting the Cargill Chicken Facility in London. Here, we were going to see the entire chicken to McNugget process, beginning (which is the end for the chicken) to end (McNugget).
None of us were looking forward to the tour, though we were all curious about the mighty McNugget. We knew that to get the answers our readers want, this was the way to do it. This tour in particular was a bit more “all-access” than I’d like, but at the end of the day, it was an important part of this journey.
After we met with Cargill representatives (a couple of whom we had previously met in Spruce Grove) we listened to a presentation about the Cargill London Facility, about Cargill as a company, as well as the pride of the employees who work there. We were also told ahead of time what we were going to see throughout the entire process so that we would be prepared.
Upon entering the receiving area where production begins and the chickens are taken through the slaughter process, we were all a bit uneasy. Me, I outright gagged. Twice. Loudly. I was mortified but continued on (with a face mask to handle the smell) because I felt that it was something I had to see in order to give a full report back to my readers. Now the ironic thing here is that my reaction was not from what I was seeing. The smell of wet chicken feathers is something my mom has professed for years to be one of the worst smells ever. It was raining in London that day. She was right.
The chicken-slaughter itself was actually very quick. To put it in simple terms – the live chicken is brought in to the receiving area and hung on the production line by the ankles which keep the chickens calm (as much as one can be calm in that situation). The lights are kept low and the chicken’s front rubs against a breast plate which also has a calming effect. Next, the chicken receives an electrical stun to render the chicken insensible, which means the chicken is still alive but unconscious and insensible to any pain. An incision is then made in the side of the neck, the chicken bleeds out and then dies before it regains consciousness. The feathers, head and feet are removed next (a hot water tank is used to remove the feathers). The process wasn’t pretty, to say the least, but growing up on the prairies, I understand this is all part of the food chain. Temple Grandin, a leading animal welfare expert, has even approved the process herself, which speaks volumes.
Once the head, feet and feathers are removed the chicken moves on to the next stage of the primary processing, where the chicken, including internal organs, are inspected to make sure the chicken is wholesome and ready for processing into food. The chicken is then cooled in a chiller and it is after this point that the chicken is in the same state as you would buy them in the grocery store. Full disclosure here, I won’t buy/cook a whole chicken because of the way it looks – bones, wings…yup, wasn’t this tour just perfect for me??
After this point, the chickens are deboned and the drums, wings, thigh meat and breast meat are removed. The meat is passed through 2 x-ray machines up to 3 times to ensure there are no bones left in the product.
The white chicken breast meat is what’s used in the Chicken McNuggets, so after the deboning and removing the sections of meat from the chicken, the breast meat used to make Chicken McNuggets is put into a mixer (even though the term “blender” is used by documentary writers and chefs on TV, there are no blades to chop/blend the meat so it’s essentially mixed, not blended). The mixer also contains a marinade and a proportional amount of the skin from the breast meat, which we learned is a great binder to help the meat form (who knew?).
Once mixed, the meat goes through the production line and is formed by a machine into the 4 distinct shapes of Chicken McNuggets – the boot, the bell, the ball and the bow tie. Bet you didn’t know there were actual names for each of the shapes? I didn’t either.
Once formed, the McNuggets are first battered with flour and then covered with a Tempura batter before going into a fryer to make the coating crisp. The McNuggets are par-fried at this point but not fully cooked until they have been cooked at the restaurant. Once the frying is complete, the Nuggets are immediately frozen, inspected once more, and then placed 27 to a bag and then boxed 28 bags to a box.
Similar to the beef-to-patty process at Cargill Meats in Alberta when we saw Quarter Pounder patties being made, the process to make a Chicken McNugget is quite simple. There were no back rooms where mysterious ingredients are added and all our questions were answered when we needed clarification on something.
Thanks to my readers for the questions they provided – I got answers! Take a jump over to my blog here to read a Q&A segment about McDonald’s Chicken.
On our last trip as a McDonald’s All-Access Mom, we were off to London, Ontario to visit McDonald’s Canada’s chicken supplier, Cargill Meats, and to see first-hand how the McDonald’s chicken menu items like the Chicken McNugget is made. As a kid, the McNugget was pretty much the only item I ever ordered. They are little nuggets of tastiness that most kids love. As I got older, the fact that the inside of the nugget didn’t really look like chicken always kind of bothered me. I prefer the chicken strips that look like full pieces of chicken. Once I became a mom with kids old enough to eat McNuggets I found myself even more concerned over the quality of the “chicken” in the nuggets. Four kids later they all love McNuggets, so I really wanted to know what they are made of.
We began our journey into the making of a McNugget from the very beginning – learning about how the eggs are purchased and placed in a hatchery. In the hatchery, the eggs are put on big trays that rotate in order to keep them warm just like they would be kept under the mother hen. I asked why they had to take them from the mother hen (sappy new mom question). Why couldn’t they just collect the chicks once the eggs had hatched? The experts answered by explaining that they need so many eggs and they need to keep the groupings together by age in order to control the conditions of all of the eggs. The eggs need to be the same age so they can all be vaccinated at the same time and finally, so they all hatch at the same time. This makes it safer from a food safety perspective and easier from a logistics perspective.
Moving from the egg to the chicken, we learned about how the animals are raised by farmers and brought to the Cargill facility for processing. I’ve never liked to see animals caged or confined so I asked about how and why the chickens are kept indoors in large barns. I also asked if they are able to walk around with plenty of space and why they do not go outside. It was explained to me that there are a lot of concerns about diseases from other birds and animals that would come in contact with the chickens if they were outside, which would make them more susceptible to illness. As it is, chicken farmers are extremely cautious about who goes in the barn with the chickens as well.
The topic of disease led us into to talking about antibiotics and their use in chickens. Basically it comes down to the fact that if the chickens gets sick, they would be assessed by a vet and given the appropriate medication to prevent the rest of the flock from getting sick as well. The chickens are monitored and not sent to Cargill until they have met a required recovery time that would make sure the antibiotics are out of their system before processed for meat production.
Once at Cargill, we witnessed the chickens arrive on trucks in the crates you often see while driving and saw the entire process all the way to a finished McNugget. The hardest part to see was the slaughter. McDonald’s has worked with Temple Grandin, a world reknown animal welfare expert, on animal welfare practices throughout the entire chain including the process of slaughtering the chickens. It still took a lot of deep breaths from all of the moms to actually see this part of the tour. Once we entered the area we saw the chickens removed from the crates and hung by their ankles, where, surprisingly they didn’t freak out. The chickens move along and are stunned by an electric current that renders them unconscious and insensible to pain. There is some controversy around this process as PETA doesn’t agree with this method. I asked Cargill and McDonald’s why they are using this method and they explained all of the slaughter options and why they have chosen this method.
After the chickens are stunned, their necks are slit and they bleed out. This was not an easy process to watch, but it is the reality of where and how our food comes to us. The rest of the process is what you would imagine. Cargill doesn’t waste any part of the chicken, they use the best cuts for the McDonald’s products and the rest are sold for things like pet food. If I worried about anything after this tour it was about pet food!
Next, we went on to watch the process for making the McNuggets and other McDonald’s chicken products. The breasts and tenderloins of the chicken, along with a natural proportion of chicken skin are used for the McNuggets, along with a few spices. The pieces are not ground like beef but actually mixed together at a cold temperature and that is how the pieces of chicken blend together. It allows them to form the chicken into shapes. Who knew there are actually 4 shapes – the bell, the ball, the boot and the bow-tie. Yup, pull that little nugget of information out at your next cocktail party.
Once they are shaped by a very cool cookie cutter-like machine they are coated in a batter, then flour and then covered in another tempura-like batter which explains the golden brown batter yumminess of the McNuggets. It makes sense but I wouldn’t have guessed a tempura batter!
We then saw how the grilled chicken is made, which was also interesting. They take the chicken breasts and a computer scans the shape of each breast and a laser-guided water jet cutter cuts the chicken into the perfectly-sized piece…which explains why they are all the exact same size. Again nothing is wasted since the leftover pieces that are cut-off are used for other products like the McNuggets or the McChicken.
Overall, it was an exhausting day of learning and experiencing new things. I was very nervous to see the chickens slaughtered and worried about what parts of the chicken go into the McNuggets. The Cargill team at the chicken facility, like the other McDonald’s suppliers we have visited, take their role very seriously and are extremely proud of the high standards McDonald’s has set for them on food quality and safety. It also once again reinforced the important role our Canadian farmers have in those same standards for our food. Cargill processes over 80 000 chickens a day. That’s a lot of chicken supplied by Canadian farmers. It got me thinking – when I think of McDonald’s I don’t think of eating locally but when you think about all the farmers involved from the chickens and the potatoes and more, hundreds of Canadian farmers are involved in the process.
This part of the All-Access Moms tour took us to London, Ontario to visit the Cargill Chicken Facility. Cargill processes chickens for McDonald’s menu items including Chicken McNuggets, grilled chicken for salads, sandwiches and wraps and the McChicken and Junior Chicken Sandwiches.
As with tours at other McDonald’s suppliers, safety and hygiene are of the utmost importance, so we had to put on the required gear, which has become a favourite look of mine! We received a brief on the subject and were instructed that anyone with nail polish had to wear gloves, all jewellery had to be removed and we had to wash our safety boots in a foot shower. There are more than 3000 checks and balances in place to ensure that only the best possible product is served at McDonald’s. It’s always reassuring for me to see the attention to cleanliness and safety – especially when it comes to chicken!
We learned about the supply chain, step-by-step- from egg incubation to chicken to product. We were also fully briefed on the part of the journey that I was most dreading – the slaughter process. I can’t say that I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. I found it informative and was happy to learn that the process was swift and humane which I was concerned about.
Chickens are stripped of the meat by hand, with no parts being wasted. Some parts of the chicken are used for pet food, other parts like the wings and legs go to grocery stores and of course the chicken breast is used to produce products like Chicken McNuggets. If you didn’t know- McNuggets are made with all white breast meat.
What was most interesting for me, aside from the food safety, was the size of the work force and the passion that they had for their jobs. It was really nice to see how dedicated and happy the people are. The Cargill stakeholders really take a lot of pride in providing quality product to McDonald’s.
When I learned our third McDonald’s All-Access Moms trip would bring us to Cargill Meats in Alberta, where we would learn about how hamburgers are made, I wasn’t exactly looking forward to it. As I shared in my initial post announcing the trip, I was hesitant to go, because I was scared of what I might see. I returned from the trip and shared with my friends and family that I was really impressed with what I learned and thankfully, I can still eat Big Macs!
What goes into our beef is a concern, and this was mirrored by the comments and questions I received from readers to bring forward to the people who could answer them. Some common questions were, “What’s really in the beef?”, “Is 100% Beef a trademark name?”, and “What are the cattle fed and how are they treated?” I set out to find answers to these questions, and many more while in Alberta.
Our first day brought us to the Cargill Meats Beef Facility in Spruce Grove, Alberta. This single facility supplies hamburgers to all the McDonald’s restaurants across Canada and 3 million patties are processed daily! That’s a pretty mighty feat for a facility of its size. Stakeholders (the term Cargill uses for their employees, which I love) take huge pride in their work, knowing the reach their group has here in Canada. As a side note, this is something I’ve noted through all our trips – the pride in the people who supply the food to McDonald’s here in Canada is huge.
It’s difficult to explain everything we learned in one blog post, so I’m going to break it down by the questions brought forward by my friends, family, and readers and what I learned to bring back to them, in my own words. Hopefully this discussion will answer some questions you’ve had too.
So what’s in the ground beef that Cargill supplies to McDonald’s?
Hamburger meat is composed of the same cuts used in your grocery store roast and steak. Essentially it’s roast cuts and steak trimming.
Wait, where’s the other stuff I heard about on the web?
Probably in the same place other urban legends live. I saw the entire process from the beef being brought into the facility, cut up, in huge containers to it being ground up then pressed into a Quarter Pounder hamburger patty. Nothing was added to the meat in the process (no pink sludge, no ammonia, and other things that are reported online).
No ammonia? But I saw that on a documentary, who’s lying?
No one is lying. The documentary you saw was likely produced in the US and covers US food practices. The use of ammonia in beef is not approved in Canada.
The burgers taste different than the ones I make at home, they also look different. Why is that?
There are no seasonings added to the hamburger meat, but you likely do add seasonings at home. Also, when I make my burgers at home, they never look the same (truthfully sometimes they look like hamburger snowballs)! The hamburgers produced at Cargill are made by machine, so yes they will all look exactly the same, and likely not at all like your home-made burgers. Salt and pepper are added at the restaurant when grilling.
How do I know the meat coming out of the Cargill facility is safe, even if you say it doesn’t have anything added?
Cargill performs more than 2,400 recorded quality and food safety checks every day. The production line has two metal detectors to find any trace of foreign materials. Cooked patties from the production line are evaluated for their consistency related to appearance, texture, and flavour and these tests are performed every 30 minutes, which means 40 times daily.
On the second day, we visited a farm that supplies beef to Cargill. This, of course, is the first step in the beef production process. I had never been to a large scale feed lot but again, read about some of them on the internet and wasn’t sure what to expect. Here’s what I learned about the beef production process as it begins “down on the farm”.
Cows calve in the winter months indoors. Calves stay with their mother for about 8-9months (this is when they are weaned too) until they enter the second step in the process at about 10-12 months. During their first nine months of life, the calves graze on pastures and grasslands.
Once they enter the feed lots, they stay for a total of 90-200 days and gain about 3-3.5 pounds per day. The cows eat a combination of grasses and barley in the feed lot.
I thought a feed lot would look more like a production-line place, where cows were there only to eat and not move about much at all. Me being, well…me…didn’t even realize we were IN the feed lot until we were leaving. I thought we were near the pastures because my perception of a feed lot was nothing like what I saw. The cows had tons of room to roam around, graze and run. Feed lots here in Canada range in size, holding anywhere from a few hundred head to over 40,000.
People have concerns about animal welfare and animal treatment which is understandable. Living in Saskatchewan my entire life, it always makes me shake my head when people question a farmer’s integrity when raising cattle or other animals for slaughter. What I have always known, and more people need to understand, is that a farmer’s livelihood is in his livestock. It is, quite literally, what puts food on his table for his family and a roof over their heads. To mistreat the very product that ensures his livihood makes no sense. A farmer takes pride in his livestock and his land – this I know after 34 years on the prairies.
Still, it’s important to have procedures and policies in place to make sure our animals are treated ethically and humanely, and all beef cattle that are supplied to Cargill are treated in compliance AMI’s guidelines for humane treatment of animals.
In fact, world renowned expert in animal welfare, Temple Grandin, was quoted as saying, “McDonald’s should be given credit for bringing about improvements in animal welfare in the entire beef industry…I have been in business for more than 25 years and have never seen such a transformation.” You see, the policies McDonald’s brought in have shaped policies for the entire industry as well.
Next, we looked at answering questions many moms have about hormones and antibiotics in our food.
Are hormones used in the beef that Cargill uses to make McDonald’s hamburgers?
Yes. Hormonal growth promoters are given to increase lean tissue growth which results in a healthier product (less fatty) which is produced at a lower cost to the consumer. Basically, the cow grows faster spending less time in the feed lot, consuming less food as a result, and keeping the production moving along, so to speak. It is not just McDonald’s that uses hormonal growth promoters, this is a practice of the Canadian Beef industry and the use is regularly monitored by the CFIA.
Some people think that our cattle should be raised without hormones being used (that is, additional hormones as of course, all meat would have naturally occurring hormones in it) and this is possible to do, though the cost to the consumer would increase as a result. The Health Canada website (www.hc-sc.gc.ca) has more information about hormonal growth promoters.
So ammonia isn’t used but you can’t tell me antibiotics and vaccines are not used in beef production. Antibiotics are bad, right?
No, unhealthy, sick, cattle would be very bad! Vaccines are given at birth and then again 3-6 months. Antibiotics are given when a cow is showing signs of sickness. A cow that has had antibiotics must go through a withdrawal period before it could be sent to slaughter, to ensure that there’s no residual left in the meat. CFIA (Canada Food Inspection Agency) does random checks to ensure that these rules are being followed.
When the McDonald’s All Access Moms had completed our trip, we then had our usual Q&A with the producer and film crew that are capturing our tours to air in segments on CityLine, through national commercials, and on the McDonald’s All Access Moms site. When asked what surprised me most on this tour, my reply was that I was surprised by how simple the entire process is.
No mystery meat or parts used to make McDonald’s hamburgers. No documentary-worthy ingredients added to the meat to wash it, and a clear explanation about the role of hormones, vaccines and antibiotics in the beef production process that make sense to me, with references readily given to government standards and protocol for further reading.
I worried that I would not be able to eat hamburgers after this trip, but quite honestly, I feel better about eating ground beef and McDonald’s hamburgers after going on this trip and learning about ground beef production.
Hopefully, I helped answer some nagging questions fellow moms have about McDonald’s hamburgers. Now you can dispel the myth out there about the “100% Pure Beef” being a trademark name and ask your friends if they know that McDonald’s hamburger meat is made from the same cuts of beef as Sunday’s roast beef dinner.
I know that these answers won’t please everyone. There are groups that are anti-McDonald’s and that’s fine. The purpose of this program, and my enthusiastic role as part of it, has nothing to do with trying to convince people who hate a company to go eat a French fry.
This program is not for them.
This program is for moms just like me who eat at McDonald’s with their children and want to know more about the food we’re eating. It’s about education and using that information to make the decision you see fit for your family.
For more details on this trip please visit my blog Feisty, Frugal and Fabulous!
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)…
On the Farm:
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.
“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:
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.