Where's the beef?

McDonald's head of supply chain Dean McKenna talks to Keren Sall about beef sourcing, quality and the public's misconceptions about the chain

he name McDonald's is synonymous with fast food. Its march has been relentless from the US to Europe and Asia and, whichever corner of the earth you are in, you can find a McDonald's to suit almost all tastes. The McDonald's restaurants in Australia and the Middle East serve halal food and in India, you will find the same efficient counter help serving the cheap eats.

Love it or loathe it, McDonald's continues to defy its critics and prosper. The reason for its success can be pinpointed to one thing - namely, it believes the customer is king.

"If you are going to be successful you are going to have to listen to your customers. It is a competitive environment and you have to address their needs, such as transparency and innovation, or you will lose out to your competitors," says Dean McKenna, head of supply chain at McDonald's.

Ethical integrity

Although food is not a luxury, people worry about ethical integrity - namely, the quality of the meal and where it comes from, according to McKenna. "Their perception may be wrong and it is up to us to close the gap between that and reality," he says.

And it may surprise some to know that 100% of the beef used in the chain's burgers is British and Irish. In the UK, it makes a vital contribution to the livestock industry, sourcing its beef from 16,000 farms across Great Britain and Ireland.

"Pretty much all our beef, apart from a brief spell during the BSE crisis, comes from Irish and British farms. We were quick to come back and be supportive of the British farmer when the government put in the measures needed to reassure the public," says McKenna.

All the beef comes from farms with assured schemes that are audited by EFSIS on behalf of McDonald's. "This means we can offer complete traceability," adds McKenna. "We try and source locally wherever we can as, to be honest, that's good business practice all the way around."

Dealing with the thousands of farm suppliers, McDonald's could have had a logistics nightmare, but thanks to a middleman, Esca Food Solutions, which has a distribution centre in Scunthorpe, it is made much easier. Esca's adoption of "lean and efficient" principles has seen the company reduce its abattoir supply base to seven or eight, which provide all of McDonald's beef.

Forequarter and flank from more than 9,000 cattle a week are used to produce the famous McDonald's burger patties, leaving a need for a good outlet for the hindquarter. This is mainly achieved through long-term relationships with multiple retailers. Carcase balance is therefore less of a problem for McDonald's suppliers.

Beef is minced within three to

five days of the animal's slaughter. Patties are then frozen and deliveries made three times a week to each of the McDonald's restaurants. The

meat will be served within three months. "We have a rapid turnover," McKenna explains.

McDonald's conducts regular audits of each supplier and that includes Esca Food Solutions. In turn, all of Esca's suppliers, both farms and abattoirs, are subject to audits. These include one in-depth technical audit per year, usually taking two full days, traceability audits - unannounced - three times each year for every supplier, including farm visits, as well as animal welfare, SRM and product integrity audits.

McKenna comments: "We try to work with all the normal British assured farms standards, whether it is beef, chicken or pork. These standards are changing and improving all the time and we have to keep abreast of them and provide input into these, as we don't want lots of different standards creating additional administration."

It may surprise some to know that, in 2005, McDonald's won an award for contribution to animal welfare from the RSPCA. McDonald's specification for procurement of cattle, for example, requires that no animal shall travel for more than four hours from farm to abattoir, while the maximum time laid down by law is eight hours.

Last year, McDonald's used bacon from 540,000 pigs and 4,525t of boneless pork belly. Like the beef, it is sourced from the UK, as are its 81m free-range eggs.

However, unlike the beef and pork, only just over a third of the 14.6m chickens supplied to McDonald's are from the UK. Of these, 4.7m are from the UK and the rest are from farms in Brazil and Europe. "Poultry tends to be more globally traded," he says. "It is the way the supply chain has developed. The supermarkets have led the poultry chain trade."

However, McKenna reveals that the chain plans to examine the carbon footprint of chicken. There are suppositions, from the environmental point of view, that it is better to source products from certain regions. "We have had discussions with the Carbon Trust on how to approach this and to see how it will fit in with our business. Walkers Crisps and Innocents (the smoothie company) have started work on the labelling of the carbon content on all their products," he says. "It is a further move in the transparency we are keen to offer our customers."

Health has been a subject of intense debate in recent years and fast food chains such as McDonald's have received a bit of a media bashing as a result. McDonald's has been quick to react to such criticism and turn on its head what it calls the "misconception about McDonald's foods".

nutritional information

Communication is key and the chain has done this for many years by placing the nutritional content of its products on the back of its tray liners. Today, that information is also available on packaging. "Last year, we took the iconic move of putting that information on the back of our packaging. So if you pick up a McBox there is a breakdown of nutritional content by GDA," explains McKenna. These vary for adults and children and so both are given.

McKenna is also quick to point out that eating McDonald's does not lead to obesity and health concerns. "It has more to do with the customer and his or her lifestyle diet and not whether one burger is more calorific than another. It depends on a person's level of activity that day, that week, that month and so on.

"The government is saying nothing different to what we are saying. It is all about communication - giving consumers information so they can make up their own minds."