Fact Check

McDonald's Beef Imports

Is McDonald's importing beef for use in the United States?

Published Jun 6, 2002

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McDonald's is importing foreign beef for use in its restaurants in the United States and Canada.

For several years now McDonald's has been "testing" the use of imported beef to augment supplies tendered by American ranchers, but not beef from South America, and not necessarily for the reason advanced in the e-mail quoted below:

Examples:   [Collected via e-mail, June 2002]

Guys — We as cattle producers are very passionate about this. McDonald's claims that there is not enough beef in the USA to support their restaurants. Well we know that is not so. My opinion is they are looking to save money at our expense. The sad thing of it is that the people of the USA are the ones who made McDonalds successful in the first place, but we are not good enough to purchase beef from. We personally are no longer eating at McDonalds, which I am sure does not make an impact, but if we pass this around maybe there will be an impact felt. Please pass on your opinion.

This has Me just fighting mad. Just to add a note, all Americans that sell cows at a livestock auction barn had to sign a paper stating that we do NOT EVER feed our cows any part of another cow. South Americans are not required to do this as of yet.

McDonalds has announced that they are going to start importing much of their beef from South America. The problem is that South Americans aren't under the same regulations as American beef producers and the regulations they have are loosely controlled. They can spray numerous pesticides on their pastures that have been banned here at home because of residues found in the beef. They can also use various hormones and growth regulators that we can't. The American public needs to be aware of this problem and that they may be putting themselves at risk from now on by eating at good old McDonalds. American ranchers raise the highest quality beef in the world and this is what Americans deserve to eat. Not beef from countries where
quality is loosely controlled. Therefore I am proposing a boycott of McDonalds until they see the light. I'm sorry but everything is not always about the bottom line, and when it comes to jeopardizing my family's health that is where I draw the line.

I am sending this note to about thirty people. If each of you send it to at least ten more (30 x 10 = 300) ... and those 300 send it to at least ten more (300 x 10 = 3,000) ... and so on, by the time the message reaches the sixth generation of people, we will have reached over THREE MILLION consumers! If those three million get excited and pass this on to ten friends each, then 30 million people will have been contacted! If it goes one level further, you guessed it..... THREE HUNDRED MILLION PEOPLE!!!

Again, all you have to do is send this to 10 people. That's all, I'll bet you didn't think you and I had that much potential, did you? Acting together we can make a difference. If this makes sense to you, please pass this message on.

Those who feel stirred by the entreaty to boycott McDonald's in protest of its treatment of American ranchers would be well advised to first acquaint themselves with all sides of the issue before giving up their daily Big Macs. Not everything in much-forwarded e-mails is always necessarily the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

According to McDonald's, it cannot satisfy its need for lean beef by buying solely from American sources and has to turn to beef exporters outside the USA to make up the shortfall. It's not a question of there not being enough beef in the USA; it's a matter of the beef available for sale not meeting McDonald's standards for leanness. American beef cattle are primarily grain-fed and produce fattier meat, while grass-fed cattle produce leaner beef. Yes, the imported beef is 8 to 15 cents per pound cheaper than U.S.-produced lean beef, which definitely sweetens matters for the Golden Arches. Yet, price difference aside, there's still not enough lean beef available in the USA to meet the needs of the restaurant chain. American ranchers, however, claim that McDonald's leanness standards are too high, and that if McDonald's lowered its standards to a more reasonable level, it could easily purchase all the lean beef it needs without resorting to foreign imports.

Up until 2002, McDonald's was already using grass-fed Australian beef in many of its restaurants outside the United States, but for food served in its home country it had bought American. It is the single largest buyer of U.S. beef, thus the concern of American ranchers over the potential loss of any of the chain's business. McDonald's says the importation of foreign grass-fed beef will be a test amounting to less than 1% of the beef sold in restaurants nationwide, which is a far cry from the "they are going to start importing much of their beef from South America" the exhortation to boycott lays claim to.

Additionally, the references to McDonald's using South American beef in its U.S. restaurants are wrong. The imported beef American ranchers are up in arms about comes not from South America but from Australia and New Zealand, where government beef standards are even more stringent than in the U.S. And grass-fed cattle, such as the sort McDonald's is purchasing from Australia and New Zealand, don't have to be given the large amounts of antibiotics that grain-fed American cattle are typically dosed with. Cows take much longer to fatten on a grass diet than a grain diet, so American cattle are primarily fed grain (mostly corn) to get them up to market weight more quickly. However, as cows are ruminants whose natural diet is grass, a grain diet severely taxes their digestive systems, so they are often given a variety of antibiotics to fight off bacterial infections. Possibly the erroneous bit about "dangerous South American beef" was included in the call to arms to bolster support for the boycott — average consumers that might not be moved by the plight of American ranchers would be motivated by hints that McDonald's use of beef from non-U.S. sources would endanger them and their loved ones.

A Canadian version of this item has also been circulating, sent out under the name of the Alberta Cattle Feeders Association. This version is also specious, as indicated by the following statement from Jeff Kroll, Senior Vice-President, National Supply Chain, with McDonald's Restaurants of Canada Limited:

There have been a number of people at McDonald's Canada who've seen the email circulating about where we source our beef. Please feel free to pass my response on to anyone who has sent the email to you.

This email is a hoax. We currently source 100% of our beef from farms and ranches right across Canada and have no plans today to purchase any beef from South America. In the past we've purchased small quantities of beef from New Zealand, Australia and the United States, but have always sourced the vast majority of our beef from Canada.

The first email on this topic originally surfaced in the US in 2002 — at that time referencing the Texas Cattle Feeders Association — and it has resurfaced again in 2005, 2007, and again in 2008. McDonald's representatives in the US have spoken with the Texas Cattle Feeders Association and they deny any association with the email. In 2009, a Canadian version emerged that's practically identical to the one that originated in the US.

McDonald's Canada remains one of the largest purchasers of Canadian beef, and we are proud supporters of the Canadian beef industry.

I hope this clears up the confusion.

Variations: Some of the versions in circulation specify the e-mail comes from the Texas Cattle Feeders Association (TCFA). It didn't. The TCFA says on its web site that:

It's Not Our Email!

An email message that makes negative remarks about the McDonald's restaurant chain has been in wide circulation for several years now. We want anyone receiving such an email to know that Texas Cattle Feeders Association is not associated with it in any way. The email makes a false claim when it identifies Texas Cattle Feeders Association as the original source of the message. No such message has ever been put out by our organization. Unfortunately, we do not know the identity or motive of the person or persons making this improper use of our name.

Additional information:

      Dispelling Rumors about McDonald’s Beef


    Brasher, Philip.   "All-American Not All American Any More."     The Nevada Daily Mail.   3 April 2002   (p. 5).

    Erwin, Steve.   "McDonald's Canada to Buy All Beef Here."     Toronto Star.   26 July 2003   (p. 5).

    Lenz, Kelly.   "Producers' Concerns Mount."     Topeka Capital Journal.   18 April 2002   (p. 2).

    Lorentzen, Amy.   "McDonald's to Hear Beef Concerns."     The Associated Press.   21 May 2002.

    Wilkins, Dave.   "McDonald's Buys Mostly U.S. Beef."     [Salem] Capital Press.   15 January 2003.

    Chicago Tribune.   "McDonald's Tests Imported Beef."     30 March 2002.

    The Victoria Advocate.   "Burger Chain Testing Imported Beef."     7 April 2002   (p. G5).

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