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McDonald's serving 'farm-to-fork' fare? Not likely

A photo of a partially eaten McDonalds' Big Mac hamburger atop French fries

PAUL J. RICHARDS/Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

McDonald's, the global burger chain, is expected to launch a PR campaign next month to tell the "farm-to-fork" story behind its food.

In a sneak-peak commercial the company posted to YouTube on Dec. 14, a salt-of-the-earth potato farmer named Frank Martinez, who is a McDonald's supplier, carefully peels a potato and then bites into it, saying, "They're good now. Just wait 'til they're McDonald's fries."

But nutrition advocates and company critics are furious about the campaign, calling it "farmwashing." One of them charged, "The ingredient list for the fries paints more of a 'farm-to-lab' picture than anything else."

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They have a point. In addition to potatoes, the company's fries include sodium acid pyrophosphate, dimethylpolysiloxane, and tertiary butylhydroquinone, which don't entirely sound farm-to-fork to me. The farm-to-fork movement is more typically associated with chefs who buy the best possible local ingredients — they're often organic or from heirloom breeds — and then treat them as minimally as possible to let their natural characteristics shine through.

McDonald's meantime, was forced to sever its ties to one egg supplier this fall after activists released a video showing animal cruelty at the company's farms, including "hens crammed in crowded cages, workers burning beaks and one, trying to shove a bird inside the pocket of a co-worker, apparently for fun."

One Pennsylvania farmer who is annoyed with the new campaign, asked on his own farm's blog, "and what is sodium acid pyrophosphate?" A reader quickly followed up with a link to the chemical's Material Safety Data Sheet. The upshot: Workers who handle the chemical are instructed to wear: "Splash goggles. Lab coat. Dust respirator. Be sure to use an approved/certified respirator or equivalent. Gloves."

The additive is also listed as: "Very hazardous in case of skin contact (irritant), of eye contact (irritant). Hazardous in case of ingestion, of inhalation. Slightly hazardous in case of skin contact (corrosive). Inflammation of the eye is characterized by redness, watering, and itching. Skin inflammation is characterized by itching, scaling, reddening, or, occasionally, blistering."

Tertiary butylhydroquinone, meantime, doesn't have a great reputation, either.Its MSDS lists the chemical's hazards as "Hazardous in case of skin contact (irritant), of ingestion. Slightly hazardous in case of skin contact (permeator), of inhalation (lung irritant). (The entire ingredients list for the company's fries is here.)

Last year, McDonald's was accused of "local-washing" in Washington State, after announcing that many of the ingredients in its food — from milk to apples to the fish it uses in its Filet-of-Fish sandwiches to the potatoes that go into its fries — were grown in or near the state.

As a writer for grist.org said at the time, "Let's get real: These local-esque ingredients are likely grown on industrialized, chemical-soaked, monocrop farms and processed god knows where, and then McDonald's combines them withsuspect chemicals and other scary ingredients, makes a lot of gross, unhealthy, potentially dangerous food that in some cases doesn't even decompose, and markets it to kids. This is hardly what most people want when they talk about 'eating local.'"

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There has been some good news recently at McDonald's, however. The company, along with Taco Bell and Burger King, has reportedly ended the use of "pink slime" in its burgers. And what is "pink slime?" "Bits of beef from fatty carcass trimmings that had previously been sold for pet food or animal feed and then treating the beef with ammonium hydroxide gas to kill bacteria."

Hamburgers will never be the same.

Should McDonald's be advertising its food as 'farm-to-fork'?

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Chris More

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