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US Cattlemen Angry Over Beef Imports By McDonald's - 2002-05-12

The world's number one fast-food chain, McDonald's, is weathering a storm of criticism since publicly acknowledging its trial purchases of Australian and New Zealand beef for McDonald's restaurants in the United States. Some American beef producers are criticizing the company's decision, which comes at a time of growing international concerns about beef safety. The Great Plains state of South Dakota, ranchers are worried that McDonald's move could threaten their way of life.

Ever since hearing the news that the All-American hamburger might not be all-American anymore, some people in the middle of ranching country are using the word "boycott."

In the North Star Saloon near the town of Winner, under a sign that says: "If you drink to forget, pay before you start," a few ranchers are grumbling about the low prices they get for their cattle. Charlie Drews says when he goes to town nowadays, he drives right past the McDonald's restaurant and its familiar Golden Arches.

"I ain't gonna stop there," he said. "If they're gonna feed foreign meat there, I don't need to eat there. I raise good meat, and if people ate good meat, they wouldn't eat this other stuff."

Mr. Drews is protesting McDonald's trial use of imported beef in the Southeast, in about 400 of its 1,300 U.S. restaurants. McDonald's Corporation declined a recorded interview for this story. But in a written statement, the company says it remains the single largest purchaser of U.S. beef and says the imported beef is meant only to supplement dwindling supplies of lean American beef.

Fast food restaurants like McDonald's make hamburgers more affordable by buying lean beef and then mixing it with fat trimmings. The lean meat typically comes from grass-fed cattle like dairy and breeding cows, not the millions of maize-fed cattle produced in the U.S. each year to supply juicy steaks. But droughts around the country over the last few years forced some livestock producers to sell off their herds, and lean beef production isn't keeping up with demand. Some agriculture groups are asking McDonald's to buy the more expensive maize-fed meat, which there's plenty of, instead of importing beef from Australia, where most cattle are grass-fed.

University of South Dakota economist Benno Wymar says those organizations should shut up. "McDonald's is the customer here. We usually believe in this country that the customer is king. And so if the customer wants to have a certain product, in this case: lean beef, well, that's the customer's choice."

Mr. Wymar says McDonald's has to stay competitive as the fast food industry loses customers to the so-called "fast-casual" restaurants opening all across the United States. And he says rancher scare tactics to pressure McDonald's to drop imported beef could backfire.

"If people raise this issue about, 'oh the meat might not be safe,' then that's going to remind people again, that there is the possibility that people can become sick from eating beef," he said. "And so then they're probably going to stop eating beef altogether, and switch to some different kind of meat, like chicken."

Finally, the impact of the McDonald's test on beef prices has been minimal. That's mostly because import quotas mean there really won't be any more beef coming from in New Zealand and Australia. Still, the fact that the Big Mac contains meat from the land of kangaroos is hard to stomach for even cattlemen who understand it's a business decision.

"McDonald's built their golden arches using domestic product. That's kind of always been their standard, said Shorty Jones, who runs a ranch with his two sons and two grandsons. "And now if they're saying they're going to have to imported product. It's depressing, I guess."

He says it wouldn't hurt as much if there weren't a surplus of other cuts of beef right now. It costs more and takes longer to raise the leaner cattle McDonald's is looking for, so Mr. Jones isn't supplying the company as much as he'd like. He can see why some ranchers are holding a grudge against McDonald's, but thinks that's a mistake.

"We need to listen to the customer, and you're disappointed that they're going to import some," said Mr. Jones, whose ranch is on more than 80 square kilometers of native grass prairie in central South Dakota. "But if they're still your major customer, and they're buying 90% or 95% of it in this country, why do you want to get in a fight with them?"

Mr. Jones hopes the difference of opinion among American cattlemen won't do permanent damage to their $40 billion a year industry.