|By John Schmeltzer, Chicago Tribune
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Oct. 24, 2005 - McDonald's Corp., the world's largest restaurant chain, on Tuesday will invite Americans to take a virtual tour of its kitchen.
Through a link on its Web site, McDonald's plans to show how its food gets "from farm to table," with videos and explainers showing the processes and companies behind its french fries, hamburgers and Egg McMuffins.
It's a notable change for a company known for being reluctant to discuss who its suppliers are. But the Oak Brook-based hamburger giant hopes the tours will begin debunking years of criticism leveled at it by self-styled experts who have accused it of serving junk food, ignoring nutritional standards and causing obesity.
McDonald's has been the target of heavy criticism in the past decade. Its products were panned in the book "Fast Food Nation" in 2001. The company was accused of contributing to American obesity in the 2004 documentary movie "Super Size Me."
And this year, McDonald's was cited in a Harvard study of the extent to which fast-food restaurants are grouped around schools in the Chicago area.
While McDonald's disputes the substance of such criticism, it acknowledges that the drumbeat has had its effect.
"We would like to improve the perception of McDonald's on the street," said Jose (J.C.) Gonzalez-Mendez, vice president of North America supply-chain management. "We're extremely proud of what we have and think it is time we let the world know."
Peter Beresford, Europe's northern division president, put it even more succinctly during a meeting last month.
The company needs to "talk about the quality of our menu and address concerns that customers have expressed," he said.
And in other parts of the world, McDonald's has done this.
Europeans last month were invited into the kitchens of more than 2,500 restaurants in 50 countries to ask questions and see how the food they eat is prepared. Asian and Latin American restaurants also have been hosting visits this year.
Not only has McDonald's opened the doors to its kitchens, but it also opened the doors of its suppliers, many of whom have had their identities concealed for years. It's part of a program that was introduced four years ago in France.
Customers, who may have thought that the suppliers were a bunch of unknown companies, will be surprised by what they find.
"I absolutely doubt that they know that the same brand names they see in the supermarket and they use at home are what we are using," said Gonzalez-Mendez.
He said Kraft Foods Inc. supplies the cheese, ConAgra Foods Inc. provides the potatoes for the french fries, and Cargill Inc.'s Sunny Fresh Foods division supplies the fresh eggs.
But the foundation for a burger restaurant are the specifications for its burgers, said Robert Cannell, director of U.S. supply-chain management.
And that starts at Otto & Sons in West Chicago, which is owned by Chicago-based OSI Group Inc., which has been supplying hamburgers to McDonald's since Ray Kroc opened his first restaurant in Des Plaines in 1955.
Like another OSI plant in Salt Lake City, the West Chicago facility processes meat only for McDonald's. It is one of six processing plants across the country used by the hamburger chain.
It's a high-security facility surrounded by fences, with guards patrolling the grounds. Each day the plant's 200 employees, working in two shifts, churn out 560,000 1.6-ounce patties for McDonald's regular burgers and 32,000 quarter-pound patties for the 3,500 Midwest restaurants it supplies.
The deboned beef arrives in 2,000-pound tubs with identification tags that allow McDonald's at any point in the process to trace it back to the packing plant that slaughtered the cow.
"We're working on tracing it back to the farm," said Cannell, who says McDonald's uses nearly 1 billion pounds of beef each year.
"Our focus is to lead or incentivize the industry toward a national ID program," he said, citing mad cow disease and bioterrorism as reasons McDonald's believes it is an important standard.
Few consumers realize that it is a blend of corn-fed and grass-fed beef, said Cannell. Some of the grass-fed beef is imported from Australia and New Zealand because so little U.S. beef is grass-fed, he said.
It's a blend that allows McDonalds's to control the leanness of the burger by limiting the amount of fat. Each burger is about 83 percent lean.
"We are the leanest in the industry," said Gonzalez-Mendez. "We are a lot leaner than what the USDA considers lean."
But Cannell said McDonald's specifications do not allow Otto & Sons to just grind, mix, prepare, flash freeze and ship the thousands of patties each day. The company also is required to cook the burgers on restaurant grills to ensure they meet the chain's specifications.
It's the critical test in an array of 30 checks conducted by the burgermaker, said Cristina Gomez, assistant vice president of beef operations for Otto & Sons.
The farm-to-table tour will be accessible starting Tuesday by clicking on the "food quality" link in the food, nutrition and fitness section on McDonald's home page at http://www.mcdonalds.com .
PUTTING FOOD ON MCDONALD'S TABLES
Some key suppliers to be revealed on farm-to-table Web pages that launch Tuesday:
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