The Factory-to-Table Food Movement

In late 2013, McDonald’s briefly lost control of its reputation. A photo, accompanied with the caption “My buddy works at McDonald’s and sent me this photo of raw McRib meat,” was posted on Reddit. The site’s commenters voted it onto the site’s front page, where many thousands of people saw it, but it wasn’t quite a sensation. They mostly made jokes and complained about hard it is to get McRibs. One wrote: “Oh, no. It’s raw, frozen meat that is perfectly edible. Run for your lives.”

The story didn’t truly blow up until it was covered as a story. ABC’s “McDonald’s Frozen McRib Photo Stirs Web, Not Appetites” (28k Facebook shares) is an example of the duplicative national coverage; WJLA’s “Frozen McRib photo shows McDonald’s sandwich before cooking” (18.6k Twitter posts) represents one of countless local news takes. Among the people who reposted WJLA’s story was Wes Bellamy, a teacher from Charlottesville, Virginia. He posted it twice, once in November and again about a month later:

Wooooooww RT @ABC7News This is what a McRib looks like before it’s cooked, for the record.

— Wes Bellamy, M.Ed (@WesBellamy) November 15, 2013

Wooooooww RT @ABC7News This is what a McRib looks like before it’s cooked, for the record.

— Wes Bellamy, M.Ed (@WesBellamy) December 22, 2013

Tweets like this led McDonalds to release a non-denial denial:

There are few things more legendary at McDonald’s than the McRib. It is a boneless, seasoned pork patty on a bun with slivered onions, two dill pickle slices and plenty of our sweet, smoky, barbecue style sauce. One reason our customers love the McRib is its fun and wonderful shape. Just like a burger patty is formed to be round and flat, we form the iconic McRib in the shape of traditional ribs. We then flash freeze the patty to seal in flavor and freshness, just like you freeze meat in your own freezer, before going to our restaurants. The McRib is also known for its iconic taste, which is why we use a quality cut of pork — pork shoulder — to give our McRib lovers a thicker, meatier McRib experience.

This was not so much a correction as a restatement. Customers saw a picture of a flash-frozen reconstituted meat patty and thought, “gross.” What they actually should have thought, says McDonald’s, is “wow!”

This week, Bellamy is starring in a new McDonald’s video designed to repair the McRib’s reputation. Standing outside a McDonald’s production facility operated by Lopez Foods in Oklahoma City, he recounts his side of the story. “McDonald’s brought me here because of a tweet they saw. Someone sent me a picture of what I thought was a McRib,” he says. “So I think you all want to bring me here so that I can actually see how the McRib is made, and see if my mind can be changed a little bit. I don’t know, though. I’m a skeptic.” He then suits up in full protective gear as Grant Imahara, the likable Mythbusters star, announces that he will be chaperoning the visit. (Bellamy later claimed on Twitter that he had not been paid for his participation; Imahara, a recurring figure in McDonald’s videos, presumably was.)

This video is part of an advertising campaign called “Our food. Your questions.” McDonald’s tested versions of this campaign in Canada (1,400 stores) and Australia (900 stores) before rolling it out in the United States (over 14,000 stores), often using American talent — one strange and memorable video from the Canadian campaign showed the executive chef for the entire company making a Big Mac from scratch in his home kitchen. Whether these earlier campaigns were a straightforward advertising success is difficult to know, and probably beside the point: Neither campaign backfired, which is a better outcome than the pink slime McNugget scares that inspired them in the first place.

In the video, the first person our hosts meet is a VP with a science PhD. He shows the men to an enormous vat of meat, then to the machine where that meat is ground. They watch as preservatives are poured into the meat, which is then pressed into the rib-like shape. This new object is sprayed with water before it is flash-frozen; holding one of the completed patties in his hand, Bellamy talks viewers through a revelation. Imahara asks him if “this is what you saw” online. “Yeah, I think it is. But you know what, it’s kind of crazy, because it’s different, now that I actually know what goes inside of it.” They crack jokes and laugh. Below them, spotless machines grind and whir, monitored by a smattering of workers in hard hats.

What’s remarkable about this video is that it doesn’t correct any particular misconceptions: It portrays exactly what the company’s previous statements claimed, and ends with an image that is essentially indistinguishable from the one that went viral. No fears are assuaged, and no surprising secrets are revealed. The first image was shocking because the frozen meat-slab did not align with most humans’ idea of what food looks like; the same meat-slab in Bellamy’s hand, in the context of a production facility, is a triumph of precision and science. Our distaste for the products of industrial food production can be muted, in other words, by instilling a reverence for its immaculate process.

This depends on a little bit of misdirection, of course — the first time we see the meat it is dead and clean and does nothing to evoke the animals and facilities from which it came — but the video is generally honest. The part of the process it shows us is sterile and largely mechanized. It distracts from the fundamental strangeness of mass-conveyed ground pork by reminding us of tight tolerances and speed and efficiency. It’s food created with the same level of technical mastery as your iPhone or your car or your pills.

Believe it or not, the McRib is 100% Pork meat and real. I saw how it was made with my own eyes. It’s actually pretty good. I liked it.

— Wes Bellamy, M.Ed (@WesBellamy) November 3, 2014

This is a bold response to Americans’ recent (and maybe overstated!) interest in where their food comes from, and a step further than Chipotle’s attempt to appropriate the language of “locally sourced” food and “farm-to-table” dining to market its international burrito chain. It represents food as a product and its manufacture as a fact of modern life; it represents critics as luddites and concerned customers as naive people who don’t quite understand the world we now live in. Those customers are not misinformed, however! Their disgust is just wrongheaded — their obsession with where their food comes from is driven by misguided desires or category errors. It’s an ideological correction, not a fact-check. The difference between farm-to-table and factory-to-table is, in this view, semantic.

McDonald’s wants to eventually bring its regular customers around to weary, know-it-all Reddit user’s point of view that almost stopped the image from going viral in the first place:

Even at age 14, I’m not sure if I’d find this to be WTF worthy…

I bet if we showed op a picture of a cow and told him that’s where steaks come from he would shit his pants…

Yup, just like the “pink goo” of processed chicken. What would people like them to do, just waste all of the non-choice bits of meat? It seems much more practical and ethical to at least use all of the meat…

This is not wtf at all. First time OP seeing frozen fastfood?…

Cultivating these attitudes — the chain is also getting a new slogan, “Lovin’ > Hatin’” — is important for the next stage of the new industrial food revolution: the stage where the last humans leave the factory floor, and the first machines join the service ranks.