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.

Last October the discussion surfaced again when people like me reported on a very small study in the American Journal of Medicine that involved photographing nuggets—from two unnamed fast-food establishments—under a microscope. Dr. Richard deShazo at the University of Mississippi asked his pathologist colleague Dr. Steven Bigler to cut them open "just like a human being [in an autopsy]."

“I was floored. I was astounded,” deShazo said at the time. So was the Internet. For old times' sake, here are the photos again:

Microscopic images of chicken nuggets from undisclosed restaurants (University of Mississippi)

You may have noticed that it says intestinal tissue and bone. The Mississippi doctors also found nerve tissue, a lot of fat, and "generous quantities of epithelium and associated supportive tissue." DeShazo likened the nuggets to super glue, said that the kids these days are addicted, and concluded that the name chicken nugget is a misnomer.

On the defensive, the National Chicken Council (NCC) reminds us on their website, "Mechanically separated chicken has been used in poultry products since 1969." Of course, not everything that happened in 1969 was good. That was also the year that the Beatles broke up and the first Gap store opened. The NCC argues that mechanically separated chicken is safe and nutritious and prevents waste. What's more, the NCC says, that chicken is not typically used in chicken nuggets or patties.

DeShazo did not claim to speak for all nuggets. Like McDonald's, KFC and Chick-fil-A, among others, also advertise that their nuggets are entirely breast meat.

If that's not convincing, here is an earlier installment of the McDonald's Canada video series in which they sent a skeptic to an independent lab to look at McNuggets under a microscope. The skeptic, Sheri from Saskatoon, says she "read something online once that the nuggets are actually made from a processed chicken product that is pink and is turned white." She had also heard that "they just throw a chicken in a blender and make a McNugget."

Scientist Susan Bigg says in the video that her lab's analysis found white meat, without any whitening agents, and no bone particles. "There's no evidence at all that they've ground up a chicken, bones and all, and put it in a chicken nugget," Bigg says.

According to McDonald's, the McNuggets contain only white boneless chicken, water, food starch-modified, salt, seasoning (autolyzed yeast extract, salt, wheat starch, natural flavoring (botanical source), safflower oil, dextrose, citric acid), sodium phosphates, natural flavor (botanical source); and battered and breaded with water, enriched flour (bleached wheat flour, niacin, reduced iron, thiamin mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid), yellow corn flour, bleached wheat flour, food starch-modified, salt, leavening (baking soda, sodium acid pyrophosphate, sodium aluminum phosphate, monocalcium phosphate, calcium lactate), spices, wheat starch, dextrose, corn starch and are prepared in vegetable oil (canola oil, corn oil, soybean oil, hydrogenated soybean oil with TBHQ and citric acid added to preserve freshness) and dimethylpolysiloxane as an antifoaming agent.

That's what goes into each of the four McNugget shapes: bell, ball, bow tie (also known as bone), and boot. That there are four canonical McNugget shapes is the most interesting fact we learn on the factory tour. It removes us one more step from the natural chicken image but brings us one closer to that of a controlled, ordered system. Bell, ball, bone, boot. No surprises.

If none of this disgusts or endears you to chicken nuggets in particular, it's at least good as a matter of general awareness about eating. The popularity of this video and the barrage of nugget stories on the Internet say we care a lot about what goes into our bodies. Nuggets are small and surreal, and we are vast and deep. We are guided, though, in nuggets as in so many complex aspects of life, by the profoundly human desires to feel safe, informed, and in possession of meat.