Photo by Justin Tuerk.

20 Aug 2010

Origins: McDonald's Hamburger

by Karen Feridun

The coordinates N 45.45955 W 101.91356 identify a spot in South Dakota that has the peculiar distinction of being the McFarthest point in the lower 48 states. The nearest McDonald’s is 107 miles away, as the crow flies, or 145 miles away, traveling by car. AggData, a website that tracks all of the locations of over 400 companies, provided blogger Stephen Von Worley with the data he needed to identify the spot. He plotted over 13,000 McDonald’s U.S. locations on a map to find it, making for a stunning visual that makes it clear that a nearly incomprehensible amount of meat must be used each day to serve up hamburgers at all those locations. John Hayes, McDonald's senior director of U.S. food and packaging, puts the annual total at a billion pounds of beef, or 5 ½ million head of cattle , needed to serve the 23 million daily customers at locations in the United States. Worldwide, McDonald’s and its franchisees operate over 31,000 McDonald’s restaurants in 118 countries  where they sell “more than 75 hamburgers per second, of every minute, of every hour, of every day of the year,” according to the company’s Operations and Training Manual.*

McDonald's Locations

Where does all that meat come from? West Conshohocken, Pennsylvania. Not really, although West Conshohocken’s Keystone Foods is a longtime meat processor for McDonald’s and other well-known brands. Actually, you could say that Keystone owes its existence to McDonald’s. In the 1960’s, its founder, Herb Lotman, was working for his family’s beef business in Philadelphia when he developed his Individual Quick Freeze process to keep hamburger patties tasting fresh. McDonald’s contracted with Lotman upon learning of his IQF process, thus Keystone Foods was created to meet McDonald’s demands. Today, Keystone processes 260 million pounds of beef, 400 million pounds of chicken, and 25 million pounds of fish for McDonald’s each year. Lotman’s IQF process is still in use today at Keystone and other processing plants, like Lopez Foods, an Oklahoma City-based supplier of McDonald’s beef patties.

Keystone was recently purchased by Brazil’s Marfrig Alimentos SA, a company that has been snapping up acquisitions in recent years to make the most of decreased valuations here and increased demand for meat in China and India. Prior to the purchase of Keystone, Marfrig was already one of McDonald’s processors in its Latin American market. It was, in part, McDonald’s operation in Latin America that led to the longest court case in Britain’s history, the McLibel case.

It all started in 1986 when a group of activists calling themselves “London Greenpeace” (not to be confused with Greenpeace International) circulated a pamphlet called What’s wrong with McDonald’s: Everything they don’t want you to know. McDonald’s sued the group for libel, claiming that the assertions made in the pamphlet were false. All but two of those charged backed down and issued apologies to the company. The two who chose to fight the case, Helen Steel and David Morris, dubbed the McLibel Two, stood by the charges they’d leveled at McDonald’s in the pamphlet, among which was a charge that the company was destroying the rainforest, clearing it to create grazing land for cattle, and another that McDonald’s had secretly exported beef from Brazil to Great Britain until the mid-1980s.  The company denied both claims, but did admit that some of the beef they use comes from Costa Rican land that was deforested in the 1970s. The judge in the case found those claims to be untrue (although he ruled in favor of Steel and Morris on some other unrelated claims) and, after an extended appeal process, the case was put to rest after more than 15 years. The end of the lengthy proceeding didn’t put to rest suspicions about McDonald’s, though.

Rumors continue to circulate regarding McDonald’s beef supply chain via an email campaign attributed to the Texas Cattle Feeders Association that has been going on for years. The association vehemently denies any association with the messages in a statement on its site entitled, “It’s not our email!”. Whose email it is remains a mystery, but the concerns expressed within are not the typical environmental or health concerns. The gist of the rumors is that McDonald’s is considering or is already importing beef from South America, the kind of thing that might well move a cattleman to lash out. After all, McDonald’s is the number one meat purchaser in the world.

So what is the real story? Here’s what you might appropriately call the skinny on the matter according to the company and a number of industry sources. McDonald’s has started importing beef to the United States, but not from South America. According to a statement issued by the company in October 2009, a relatively small amount of beef from Australia and New Zealand is imported to the U.S. to “supplement [their] domestic beef purchases.” Today, 50% of the beef consumed in the United States is in ground form. As a result, consumers want their ground beef to be as lean as possible. U.S. grain-fed cattle produce fattier meat than the grass-fed cattle in Australia and New Zealand. It doesn’t hurt that the imported beef is 8 – 15 cents cheaper per pound, but a Tarriff Rate Quota system is in place that limits the amount of fresh, frozen, or chilled beef the two countries can export to the United States.

It’s true that McDonald’s uses South American beef in some of its locations around the world. In 1989, the company put in place a policy that states that it will refuse cattle sourced from recently deforested areas. The company’s Global Beef Board continues to work with suppliers on matters of deforestation and sustainability, but a charge made in 2006 regarding rainforest destruction, this time by Greenpeace International, had nothing to do with their beef supply chain. It had to do with chicken feed. In a report entitled Eating Up the Amazon, Greenpeace asserted that vast expanses of the rainforest were being burned down to make room for soy crops that would produce chicken feed for the fast food chain. In response to those charges, McDonald’s stopped selling chicken fed on soy from recently deforested areas.

A hamburger patty alone does not a McDonald’s hamburger make. The buns come from a number of regional bakeries, including the Tennessee Bun Company started by single mom and former McDonald’s franchisee, Cordia Harrington, a.k.a. The Bun Lady. The pickles and onions also come from a variety of suppliers. The ketchup and mustard come from Golden State Foods, who, incidentally, also developed the “special sauce” for the Big Mac. Speaking of the Big Mac, someone whose work is frequently copied, but never sourced, came up with the inspired idea of rewriting the Big Mac jingle in the parlance of the United Nations' Standard International Trade Classifications . Enjoy!

A New Jingle?

To aficionados of classic television commercials, the ingredients of a Big Mac sandwich are indelibly etched into memory in the form of a jingle. In terms of the United Nations' Standard International Trade Classifications (SITC), the jingle might sound a little different:



SITC Description

All-beef patties


Meat of bovine animals, boneless, frozen

Special sauce


Sauces and preparations, not elsewhere specified (NES), mixed condiments, and seasonings



Lettuce and chicory, fresh or chilled



Processed cheese, not grated or powdered



Cucumbers and gherkins, fresh or chilled



Onions and shallots, fresh or chilled

Sesame-seed bun


Baker's wares, NES


Sesame (sesamum) seeds

*McDonald’s Corp. at one time also owned the chains Boston Market, Chipotle Mexican Grill, and Pret a Manger, Donato’s Pizza, and Aroma Café, but have since divested themselves of interest in those companies.


Next time, Barbie. Want to know the origins of your favorite products? Drop me a line!


Complete List of McDonald’s Locations,

Where the Buffalo Roamed – How Far Can You Get from McDonald’s?, Steven Von Worley,

What Now Ground Cow?, by Wes Ishmael, Beef, April 1, 2003

What’s Up, Mac?, by Clint Peck, Beef, November 1, 2002

McDonald’s Company Website

Potential Effects of the Next 100 Billion Hamburgers Sold by McDonald’s, by Elsa H. Spencer, PhD, Erica Frank, MD, MPH, Nichole F. McIntosh, MD, MPH, American Journal of Preventative Medicine, 2005, volume 28, number 4, pp. 379 – 381, available on

Meet Our Suppliers:Keystone Foods, McDonald’s Company Website

Lopez Foods Company Website

Brazilian Company Becomes McDonald’s Main Supplier of Hamburger and Chicken, Brazil Mag, June 2010

McOnomics 2005: An Incredible Voyage through the Big Mac Supply Chain

The “McLibel Two” (libel case filed by McDonald’s Corp. against environmental activists Helen Steel and David Morris), Multinational Monitor, September 1, 1995, available on

It’s Not Our Email!, Texas Cattle Feeders Association website

Dispelling Rumors about McDonald’s Beef, McDonald’s company website

Ware’s the Beef,

TFCA Email Is a Hoax, by Clint Peck, Beef, June 1, 2004

McDonald’s Pledges to Help Protect the Amazon, Greenpeace USA, June 25, 2006

How Bread Made Her a Millionaire, by Margaret Heffernan, Reader’s Digest, June 2009

Golden State Foods Company Website

For Here or To Go?, Inside the Vault, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, Spring 1996