McDonalds' New Fresh Patties Can't Save Its Food from a Business Model Frozen in Pursuit of the Almighty Dollar

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McDonalds' New Fresh Patties Can't Save Its Food from a Business Model Frozen in Pursuit of the Almighty Dollar

The Golden Arches are heading for a collapse of the most ignominious sort. According to the Christian Science Monitor, the heart-stopping conglomerate has been pulling out one astounding sleight of hand after another in a Herculean attempt to save themselves from falling into the dog-like maw of decline and, eventually, bankruptcy. In the kind of headline that could only happen in a world where satire was well and truly dead, the Monitor asked “Can fresh beef save McDonald’s?”

Can real bullets save the North Korean army? Can real news save Breitbart? Can real physics save alchemy?

The dynamic of old-timey capitalism was that you get more than what you put in. Your job is to take a profit off the exchange. You have a hardware store, you charge a fair price, make a dime off the exchange, you do well. The dynamic of late-stage capitalism is that you get a lot more than what you put in. The other guy’s getting as little as possible. You make quality as low as possible; and if your customers don’t catch on, so much the better. And if McDonald’s, the burger empire, is considering fresh, honest-to-Kroc beef, times must be dire indeed:

In a bid to reverse a steep decline in customer traffic, McDonald’s will begin serving fresh beef, instead of frozen, in its Quarter Pounder hamburger at most restaurants by 2018. ... The move is part of a host of menu and ingredients substitutions made by The Golden Arches in recent years, which has lost around 500 million transactions since 2012, due in part to a public shift away from processed foods, as people increasingly seek fresher alternatives.

The funniest thing of all is that this grinding logic of the market has manifested as a hilarious backbiting feud between Wendy’s (who has adopted a “Fresh never frozen” motto) and the Big Daddy of the Frozen Patty. Most telling of all is this line in the Monitor’s report (bolding is mine):

But whether McDonald’s switch to fresh beef will be a success is still up in the air. The move will require workers, who are used to cooking frozen beef, to learn how to safely handle and cook fresh meat, and may slow down service, analysts say. They are not yet sure how using fresh meat would affect profit margins.

They are not yet sure how using fresh meat would affect profit margins.
They are not yet sure how …. would affect profit margins.
They are not yet sure how.

Folks, I don’t know if this is shocking news for you, but McDonald’s is the one of the companies that invented the Food Industry, capitalization and all. There are a dozen names for it. The Agricultural-Industrial Complex. Big Food. Upton Sinclair and the other now-dead progressives of the early 20th century would have just called it the Burger Trust.

According to Plunkett Research, the total value of Global Food and Agriculture was eight trillion dollars in 2016. A tenth of all the wealth on earth is tied up in food and ag. Remember organic food? Free-range chickens with biographies, and personalities all their own? That alone is an eighty-billion-dollar business. In that table I just quoted you, guess the only restaurant that gets mentioned? No points if you wager McD’s. There are thirty-six thousand of those restaurants on Earth (two hundred in China), and they supply sixty-nine million people every day. One percent of the Earth goes to McDonald’s. Daily. Eric Schlosser, in Fast Food Nation, claims that more people recognize the Golden Arches than the Christian Cross.

According to the Wall Street Journal:

For people who appreciate precision, those “Billions and Billions Served” signs atop the golden arches are disturbingly vague. McDonald’s Corp. stopped updating the number of burgers sold back in 1994 at 99 billion.

The Food Industry means: Factory farming, supply chains, regulation and streamlining in every unpleasant way you can imagine. It is the business, and the abiding preoccupation, of this group of people, and the money they represent, to know, down to the last decimal place, how profits will be rendered unto Caesar. The people who run McDonalds’ are not Big Mac aficionados. That’s not what they do. Their job is to know about how [BLANK] “would affect profit margin.” There’s literally books written—Six Sigma is one—about how you go about retaining quality. There are complex retreats, confrontation struggle sessions about understanding and gaming out profit margins. I wish to make clear the extent to which most businesses are obsessed with this: like Prom Queen in a competitive high school obsessed, like Ivy League Admissions obsessed, like NASA engineers calculating the weight of a shuttle obsessed, like a junkie weighing where to get the next job obsessed.

That’s true of a normal, high-functioning business. And for McDonald’s, who sells seventy-five hamburgers every second, McDonald’s, which is a business larger than the GDP of some nations—the 90th largest economy, as it turns out—this is a very big deal. So, when McDonald’s, which is a significant pillar of the Food Industry, which consumes five and a half million head of cattle a year—when they say that they cannot guess what numbers it will turn in, that means it’s grave news. Like Fall of Rome bad.

It’s odd, though: the same network which allowed the rise of “pink slime”— what U.S. News describes as:

Ground meat is commonly bulked up with what critics call “pink slime,” butchering scraps that have been cleansed with ammonia.

—is the same network which allows ordinary consumers to decline an invitation to McDonald’s. There were other problems with McCorporation, of course: opening a franchise costs about $2 million, while a Subway restaurant can be yours for about $100 to $200 grand. Their menu is cluttered. The brand is probably too big. There’s more challengers now—Chipotle, for one—who have learned from Ray Kroc’s company and are jumping ahead. But the real challenge to McDonald’s comes from the billions of people they’ve served.

There wasn’t a gigantic push by the FDA to get people to stop eating, and McD’s—they’re in the pocket of Big Food. What changed was the public, who, bit by bit, self-educated to where the Golden Arches were a necessary evil, and then to be shunned whenever they could. McDonald’s became the place to eat or work when you had no other options. It is the poster child for unhealthy eating, the Other, the thing you defined your Good Eating against. Foodie-ism, organic shopping, or just wise consumption, although popularly identified with middle classes, isn’t just something that belongs to Yelp-users. Wiser eating is a habit for everyone. McDonald’s is a victim of its own success: billions served, and they cannot serve themselves.