Come Tour the McNugget Factory

What's behind our eat-hate relationship with chicken blobs? McDonald's lifted the nugget curtain this week, showing fans and detractors how the 1979 creation is made.
Colored chicks at a market in Amman, Jordan (Ali Jarekji/Reuters)

In a popular gesture of transparency-in-advertising this week, McDonald's gave the world a walking tour of its McNugget creation process. Depending which tales you have heard about what's inside mass-produced chicken nuggets, the company's disclosure lands somewhere between semi-reassuring and fascinating in a not-at-all-appetizing way.

The video is an installation in an ongoing series produced by McDonald's Canada, the Canadian version of McDonald's America, bent on dispelling rumors about their food. In this case, that the insides of McNuggets are a slurry of assorted animal parts.

In actuality, the video shows that it's a slurry of pure chicken breast and skin.

The video has, in this era of food-vigilante justice, been received warmly. That's in part because it feels authentic. If what we're shown is as good as McDonald's can make the process look, it must be honest. Their nugget portrayal is distantly removed from the pristine portraits that make it to billboards. The nugget they put before us now is cold, battered, soulless.

Without further ado, here is how Cargill makes McDonald's nuggets:

In a similar public effort, McDonald's also recently invited a group of concerned mothers to tour the London, Ontario Cargill facility. In their tour video, featured on the "All-Access Moms" blog on McDonald's Canada's website, the women are initially pret-ty skeptical of the nuggets. By the end, though, they are delivering impossibly pristine sound bites like, "After going on this tour, I can say that as a mom, I am comfortable feeding my kids chicken products from McDonald's because of the care and attention that goes into making this product."

The All-Access Moms also got to tour the barns where the pre-nugget chickens were grown. This part isn't included in the video, but as they describe the scene in writing, "The barns are kept at 28 to 32 degrees Celsius, and the chickens roam around on shavings. They always have access to feed and water and are free to roam within the barn. ... For all of you who are going to ask about ‘free range’ in the barns, the chickens in these barns are just meat birds (broiler chickens). These are very different than egg layers. The broiler chickens are kept in barns to ensure food safety. If these meat birds were outside they would be more susceptible to disease."

The Moms even watch the chickens as they're killed. "In the slaughter area," one writes, "everyone was so calm and peaceful I didn’t know where I was until it was pointed out to me."

How many of us, too, in some sense, are unaware that we are in a slaughterhouse?

The idea that the process is less than a picture of serenity and purity gained traction after a 2003 lawsuit ruling wherein Federal District Court judge Robert Sweet called McNuggets "a McFrankenstein creation of various elements not utilized by the home cook."

Sweet's ruling dismissed a filing for class-action status in a suit that would hold McDonald's liable for "obesity and other illnesses in young people." Despite the condemnatory McNugget remark, he decided, "Nobody is forced to eat at McDonald's. (Except, perhaps, parents of small children who desire McDonald's food, toy promotions or playgrounds and demand their parents' accompaniment.) Even more pertinent, nobody is forced to supersize their meal or choose less healthy options on the menu. As long as a consumer exercises free choice with appropriate knowledge, liability for negligence will not attach to a manufacturer."

The good name of chicken nuggets took another blow when the fact that some contain mechanically separated chicken began to circulate. That grew especially popular after a 2010 episode of ABC's Food Revolution. In the now-famous bit, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver demonstrated how to make a nugget that uses most every part of the chicken: bones and visceral organs and whatnot, in addition to some meat. This segment has now been seen more than two million times on YouTube, at least in part because the kids in the video who watch Oliver macerate the chicken carcass choose nonetheless to eat his nuggets.

Mechanically separated chicken rumors still trail McDonald's, even though several years ago they began a concerted effort to assure consumers that they only use breast meat. Other fast-food chains say they do the same.

Presented by

James Hamblin, MD, is a senior editor at The Atlantic. He writes the health column for the monthly magazine and hosts the video series If Our Bodies Could Talk.

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