Is it Game Over for the McRib?

Thanks to this week’s S.E.C. complaint filed by the Humane Society, McDonald’s McRib continues to get clobbered by the press. The New York Daily News and the Huffington Post both weighed in today with the sorts of articles McDonald’s would certainly rather not see published.

But I think the best recent McRib coverage to appear so far is Chicago Mag’s article by Whet Moser. He offers thorough reporting about the inventors of the McRib, how the sandwich came to be, and the process by which a phony pork rib sandwich gets manufactured.

Oddly, Moser seems perfectly happy with the idea of eating this sort of thing, but then he also admits to enjoying tripe. In any case, I’ve got to think that most of his readers will find themselves appalled by some of the details Moser supplies.

And there’s a key bit of vocabulary that Moser introduces in his article; one that food advocates of every stripe ought to add to their arsenal. How’s this for an appetizing phrase? Restructured meat.

That’s not some slur concocted by angry vegans to disparage a product—it’s what one of the key developers of the McRib calls its fabrication process, which I might add is likewise used to create everything from Chicken McNuggets to many varieties of cold cuts. Here’s Moser quoting McRib co-developer Roger Mandigo on restructured meat:

Restructured meat products are commonly manufactured by using lower-valued meat trimmings reduced in size by comminution (flaking, chunking, grinding, chopping or slicing). The comminuted meat mixture is mixed with salt and water to extract salt-soluble proteins. These extracted proteins are critical to produce a “glue” which binds muscle pieces together. These muscle pieces may then be reformed to produce a “meat log” of specific form or shape. The log is then cut into steaks or chops which, when cooked, are similar in appearance and texture to their intact muscle counterparts.

The no-B.S. just-the-facts style of Mandigo’s descriptions is a dream come true for veggie advocates. Think about it: the guy behind the McRib has gone on the record—in great detail—about what goes into this travesty of a sandwich.

Last week, I blogged:

The McRib may well be profitable, but the outpouring of negative publicity intensifies with each reintroduction.

Moser’s article is a prime example of why I’m convinced that the McRib doesn’t have much of a future. Since its introduction in 1981, the McRib has been a brilliant way for McDonald’s to capitalize on occasional depressions in pork prices, by trotting out a sandwich marketed on the basis of scarcity.

But 1981, and even 2001, seems like a century ago when it comes to the growing attention Americans give to sustainable agriculture and animal cruelty. These days, a reintroduction of the McRib still undoubtedly means a nice influx of added profits to McDonald’s, but it comes at an increasingly steep cost to the company’s reputation. Can McDonald’s afford to continue its association with a product that’s invariably the butt of jokes, and is inextricably linked to gestation crates, animal cruelty, and restructured meat?

McDonald’s has, after all, positioned itself a big step above bottom-tier fast food chains like Hardee’s, KFC, and Jack-in-the-Box. Those chains have staked their future on continually striving to find new and crappier offerings: witness the Monster Thickburger, the Double Down sandwich, and pretty much every damned item on Jack-in-the-Box’s menu. McDonald’s, by contrast, seems to improve its salad offerings every year. It’s gotten behind premium coffee. It offers free wifi. And it’s the #1 restaurant purchaser of fresh apples.

In contrast to its competition, McDonald’s is a company that’s outgrowing its Big Mac and fries legacy. And if there’s one thing you can be sure of, there are savvy marketing people at the company acutely aware of the barrage of negative publicity the current incarnation of the McRib is receiving. Will this be the sandwich’s final appearance? There’s no telling, but the McRib’s future is undeniably bleak.