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How Does McDonald’s Ensure Burger Safety?

NORTH BALTIMORE, Ohio - The hamburger you buy at McDonald's may look just like the hamburger you cook at home.

But, in terms of safety, the two burgers are not close. Not unless you buy your own meat directly from a packing plant that you'd not only inspected yourself but was also inspected by a third party. And you demand the meat be tested multiple times for E. coli, salmonella and coliform bacteria.

A day spent at the Keystone Foods plant here, one of five in the United States that makes hamburger patties for McDonald's, is a glimpse into the world of extreme food safety.

McDonald's is considered one of the best, if not the best, company in the United States when it comes to food safety. "They're the top of the top," says Caroline Smith DeWaal, food-safety director of the non-profit Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, D.C.

No one enters the work floor without stopping at the automatic hand washers that work on the same principle as a car wash. Inside, the plant is a vast plain of chilly concrete and shining stainless steel, gleaming from the efforts of the 32-person cleaning crew that works from 2 to 6 a.m.

The big chunks of beef that will become hamburger arrive in steel-reinforced boxes called combo bins, each as big as a hot tub. The trucks they come in from the packing plant are sealed with a numbered steel bolt that can be opened only with bolt cutters. Only a Keystone employee is allowed to open them.

"If a driver says, 'I'll help,' and cuts the bolt,' we send it back," says Andrew Kornick, a Keystone general manager.

The meat can't even be backed up to the receiving dock without a "certificate of analysis" stating it's been tested and found negative for E. coli, a particularly dangerous contaminant. If it passes, it is then sampled and tested for salmonella, total aerobic and coliform bacteria.

Then it makes its way through machines that grind it, shape it into patties and freeze it. Once it's in patty form, samples are taken every 15 minutes on the line and are retested for E. coli.

If a sample turns up positive, the two hours' worth of patties in that batch are destroyed by being buried in a landfill. In addition, two hours' worth of patties produced on either side of that batch - an additional four hours' worth of product - are sold to an outside company that fully cooks them before selling them elsewhere, killing any possible E. coli.

"Basically, six hours is deleted from our system, even though we don't know that those two hours on either side are even positive," says McDonald's spokeswoman Danya Proud.

In the 50 minutes between the moment the first chunks of beef are wheeled onto the plant floor to when the patties are boxed for shipment to restaurants, the meat goes through at least two metal detectors - there are 15 at this plant. The plant's quality-assurance team also takes multiple samples.

Some are microbiological, and some are simply to ensure that each patty is exactly formed to McDonald's specifications. A micrometer is used to measure the exact thickness of the patties. McDonald's fusses over the correct thickness and weight, "so we can ensure that the product cooks to the correct temperature," says process control manager John Anderko.

Even the little divots in the patties have to be exact. They are there to create channels for the heat from the griddle to rise through the meat, allowing the patties to cook more quickly and consistently, he says.

At the restaurants, the same level of fastidiousness is enforced. At a McDonald's on Airport Highway in Holland, Ohio, about 34 miles from the Keystone plant, shift manager Cameron Suter starts the lunch shift by calibrating his thermometer in a cup filled half with ice, half with water.

Suter then deep fries or grills a set of every meat product that will be sold during that shift, beginning with Chicken McNuggets, chicken strips and chicken patties, then moving on to the various burgers.

The operation centers on a specially designed "clam shell" grill that closes over hamburgers, from the bottom and the top, to cook both sides at once. It is attached to a timer, so even if a new cook tried, he or she couldn't undercook the meat. All hamburgers are cooked to an internal temperature of 155 degrees, which has been scientifically validated to kill bacteria.

When the timer goes off and the grills open up, Suter inserts his instant-read thermometer into each patty and calls out the temperatures to his assistant, who records them in the restaurant's food-safety booklet.

Everything that happens in the restaurant is choreographed at the corporate level. Even hand washing is mandatory every 60 minutes and whenever a worker moves from one task to another.

At the Airport Highway restaurant, hand washing comes at the top of the hour. At 30 minutes after the hour, all workers pause to use hand sanitizer.

"There's an alarm that goes off, and the whole crew washes their hands, beginning with the managers," says Todd Bacon, a McDonald's senior director of quality systems.

1 Responses »

  1. My most sincere appreciation for spelling out in graphic detail why to NEVER EAT AT MACDONALD'S!!! It's confirmed: nasty, disgusting & unconscionable. Wake up!