As you pull up to a McDonald’s Drive-thru, you begin looking over the menu items and finally decide what you’re craving. You move to the speaker and begin to order: “I’ll have two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, and onions on a sesame seed bun,” a classic Big Mac. The server then replies: “Would you like fries with that?” This staple dish has defined American Agriculture and the food industry for the past 50 years. The two all-beef patties are still the rage among American consumers today, but where do these ingredients come from? Each ingredient in a Big Mac takes its own unique journey from the farm to your table.
Let’s start with the two all-beef patties; McDonald’s sources its supply of beef from various farms spanning the southern US to California to the Midwest and even Australia and New Zealand. But, how does this beef go from a cow to the meat on our Big Mac? We like to classify meat production in a series of 6 steps. The first step is raising the animal. Beef animals are bred for their depth of body, length of loin, and even strength in the hindquarters. Once cattle are raised to the quality needed to meet USDA quality standards, they are sent to the market and fill the supply chain. Once animals are ready for production, they finish the following five meat production steps.
The next steps include stunning, slaughtering, and butchering, which encapsulates the time between kill to meat. Next, a beef animal’s carcass is evaluated based on characteristics such as marbling, muscle color, and skeletal maturity. During the butchering process, the animal is divided into different cuts of meat which are then packaged and distributed to buyers like McDonald’s.
After the all-American beef on a Big Mac, the next ingredient is the shredded lettuce that we all hate to watch fall out the bottom of our sandwich. Lettuce is grown year-round and can be commonly found in California and Arizona fields here in the states. Lettuce grows best in a cool environment because when lettuce plants get too hot, they bolt; bolting is when a lettuce plant shifts from leaf production to flower production, creating bitter leaves, causing the leaves to become bitter (Crivelli, 2021).
When the lettuce crop receives the nutrients it needs, the leaves eventually mature and need to be harvested. The lettuce harvesting process is very labor-intensive. First, each head of lettuce is removed by hand by workers with knives; the heads are then placed on the conveyor belt of the harvesting rig, which washes and packs the lettuce for the processing plant (Crivelli, 2021). Finally, the lettuce heads are cleaned, sorted, and packaged for distribution to consumers at the processing plant.
The next ingredient is the classic American cheddar cheese that is placed perfectly on your Big Mac bun. The cheesemaking process has six essential steps: acidification, coagulation, separating curds and whey, salting, shaping, and ripening. Acidification is where milk changes its state from a liquid to a more solid texture. A starter culture is added to the milk during this stage, which changes lactose into lactic acid. The starter culture changes the acidity level of the milk and begins turning milk from a liquid into a solid.
Following acidification, coagulation is the stage that marks the final turning point from liquid milk to a solid mass. This solid mass is often called “curd.” These curds are then separated from the remaining liquid (whey) and placed aside for other processes.
The salting process is where the flavor is added to the cheese, and the curds begin to fully solidify and develop a solid rind. Salt also helps to kill any bacteria in the cheese. Once the cheese is fully hardened, the shape is then formed. This step in the process shapes the bricks of cheese we all see in grocery stores today. Finally, the cheese ripening stage is where the curds mature fully, which is responsible for the distinct flavor of the cheese. Once the cheese matures, it is packaged and distributed to restaurants, stores, and schools for consumer use.
The next ingredient in a Big Mac is pickles. The majority of pickling cucumbers in the US are grown in Michigan due to the well-drained sandy soils, which are suitable for cucumbers. Additionally, there were high numbers of central-European immigrants that settled in the region, who are famous for their mastery of the pickling process (Pickling Cucumber industry centered in Michigan 2019). Commercially the harvest of cucumbers is very similar to that of tomatoes.
Cucumbers are harvested by a machine known as a forage harvester (Sanchez et al., 2021). Forage harvesters take in the entirety of a plant and separate the leaves from the fruit. In this case, they separate the cucumber from the leaves and stems into a truck bin that drives alongside the harvester (Sanchez et al., 2021). The truck then takes the cucumbers to a plant, where the cucumbers are then washed, sorted, and packed. Cucumbers destined for pickling are then sent to a plant to go through the pickling process that we all know just on a grander scale. After being pickled, the product then gets packed and distributed to consumers.
The final vegetable in a Big Mac is the onions. Onions, similar to lettuce, are also grown in California, where both spring and summer harvested onions thrive. Onions have particular growing conditions for optimal growth; onion plants like slightly acidic soils ranging from 6.0 to 6.8 pH. This unique requirement eliminates many growing locations. Onions also require lots of moisture due to their root’s lack of surface area, limiting the amount of water the roots can take in. Once onions reach maturity, they are ready for harvest.
The harvesting process for onions takes multiple steps (Onion Production in California 2019). First, the onion tops are flailed off, then using a machine called a windrower which undercuts the onion bulbs, lifting them out of the soil; after undercutting the onions, the Windrower then pushes the onions into two separate windrows (Onion Production in California 2019). The Windrower divides the onion bulbs into two windrows because onion harvesters take in the bulbs two rows at a time. Next, the harvester sorts through dirt, debris, and the onion bulbs. It does this by using a color sensor that senses the lighter color of an onion bulb (Onion Production in California 2019). After the bulbs are divided in the field, they are then cured in the field, which allows the onions to dry and set the skins. After curing, the onions are then sent to a plant, cleaned, sorted, and packaged for consumption.
Sesame Seed Bun
Last is one of the more iconic ingredients in a Big Mac, the sesame seed bun. The main ingredient in a sesame seed bun is wheat. Wheat is grown across the US, most commonly in the Midwest and Pacific Northwest (Shahbandeh, 2021). The states of Kansas, North Dakota, and Montana have been the leading wheat producers for the past few years showing the extensive range that wheat can be grown in (Shahbandeh, 2021). Although wheat’s planting time and location vary based on regional weather conditions, spring and winter wheat are the two common planting seasons. Spring wheat is planted in the early spring and harvested by late summer or early fall, while winter wheat is planted in early fall and harvested in late summer.
The process for gathering the grain from a set wheat head has changed dramatically over the years; a process that once required three different steps, reaping, threshing, and winnowing, has now been optimized down to one machine, the combine. After the wheat is harvested, most farmers sell the grain to mills, cooperatives or export the grain to foreign countries, commonly Asia. When the grain arrives at a mill, it is frequently milled into flour which is used in a slew of foods that most of us eat every day. Some common foods include pasta, pastries, loaves of bread, crackers, and yes, sesame seed buns.
The journey of the main ingredients in a Big Mac to your table is a long and diverse one. So the next time you decide to order two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, and onions on a sesame seed bun, don’t forget the fries, and to think about the journey that your meal has taken through the Northeast, and Great Lakes, across the Midwest, and down to the American Southwest to arrive in your mouth.
By John Stables
Crivelli, M. (2021, July 25). Commercial lettuce Harvesting, packing & processing. The Produce Nerd. https://www.theproducenerd.com/2019/07/lettuce-harvesting-packing-processing/.
Great American Media Services & Vegetable Growers News. (2019, April 17). The Pickling Cucumber industry is centered in Michigan. Vegetable Growers News. https://vegetablegrowersnews.com/news/pickling-cucumber-industry-centered-in-michigan/.
Sanchez, E., Gioia, F. D., Kime, L., Harper, J. K., Orzolek, M., & Bogash, S. (2021, July 28). Cucumber production. Penn State Extension. https://extension.psu.edu/cucumber-production.
Shahbandeh, M. (2021, March 11). U.S. top wheat-producing STATES 2019. Statista. https://www.statista.com/statistics/190376/top-us-states-in-wheat-production/. UCANR. (2019). Onion Production in California. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zsw3uPFh3i0.