Big Mac

Two all-beef patties. Special sauce. Lettuce. Cheese. Pickles. Onions. Sesame-seed bun. Even if you’ve never eaten one, you likely know the description as that of McDonald’s signature Big Mac sandwich. The iconic hamburger is the definitive fast-food menu item: filling, quick and cheap, but what are we really getting for our $3 sandwich? Certainly there’s more to it than just the 540 calories, 29 grams of fat and 25 grams of protein. 

We love great deals, and food is no exception. In fact, it’s more like the rule. There’s nothing wrong with cheap food (especially if it’s grown in our own yards). But that’s not the case in this country. Aisle after aisle of every supermarket is lined with impossibly inexpensive foods from cereals to snacks. And drive-thru after drive-thru is also pumping out those miraculous Dollar Menu items that defy all logic. How is it that a salad can cost more than a Big Mac? When we factor in the expense of raising a cow for meat and milk, growing and harvesting all the produce, manufacturing the bun, the sauce, transporting the food to the restaurant and then hiring people to cook, package and sell the sandwich, not to mention the billions of dollars spent on marketing the sandwich to you, it’s clearly impossible that any sandwich with that much involved could be sold for $3. Yet more than 550 million Big Macs are sold every year.

Big Mac ingredients are sourced from all over the continental U.S., Australia and New Zealand. Beef, chicken, pork, eggs and virtually all of the buns and breads contain genetically modified soy, corn and canola. The sesame seed bun and special sauce both contain a laundry list of toxic chemicals including mono- and diglycerides, ethoxylated monoglycerides, polysorbate 80 and ammonium chloride. Food science at its finest, no doubt, but it still seems impossible that the Big Mac could be so inexpensive. How do they do it?

One perpetrator is the controversial Farm Bill, which is responsible for subsidizing the industries that support cheap meat, mainly corn and soy. The grains and legumes are not the natural diet for cows, but they’re being fed to our nation’s livestock by the ton because federal subsidies on corn and soy save the beef industry more than $500 million per year. That’s a deflected cost put back on taxpayers. In fact, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, meat is actually cheaper now than it was in 1978, because of subsidies. According to the PCRM (Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine), “By funding these crops, the government supports the production of meat and dairy products–the same products that contribute to our growing rates of obesity and chronic disease. Fruit and vegetable farmers, on the other hand, receive less than 1 percent of government subsidies.”

Journalist and author Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma, In Defense of Food) traced the production of a Big Mac, traveling from feedlot to wheat, corn and soy fields, to oilfields in the Middle East. He says that it takes 26 ounces of oil to produce a double quarter pounder with cheese. That oil goes into the fertilizer and pesticides, and transportation as well as packaging and other essentials to production. Author Raj Patel (The Value of Nothing) says that the more than 550 million Big Macs sold in the U.S. each year create nearly 3 billion pounds of carbon dioxide, and the cost to offset those emissions is more than $36 million dollars.

According to a team of Swedish researchers, a Big Mac uses .84 gallons of crude oil, or roughly 87 billions gallons per year. A Western Washington University researcher made a comparable sandwich with locally sourced ingredients and calculated that it required less than half the energy used in making a Big Mac served at a nearby location.The breakdown of McDonald’s energy consumption: Tomato and lettuce production and transportation, 0.181 gallons; beef and cheese, 0.329 gallons; bun, 0.067 gallons (no data available for special sauce).

And then of course, there’s the cost of the Big Mac after you’ve eaten it. With ten grams of saturated fat, it’s half the recommended daily limit, which can lead to obesity, diabetes, cancer and heart disease. The health care costs for diet-related illnesses are more than $700 billion per year. Fast-food outlets, like McDonald’s, also contribute to the rising taxpayer costs of federal and state welfare and food stamp programs and Medicaid, as the companies rarely pay above minimum wage, which keeps many individuals at the poverty line and dependent on government programs.

The trail of the Big Mac doesn’t end there. According to Californians Against Waste, “fast food outlets are our country’s primary source of urban litter and a significant hurdle to local communities’ waste diversion goals,” costing taxpayers millions more each year in litter removal.

Keep in touch with Jill on Twitter @jillettinger

Resources:

http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/05/20/whats-wrong-with-this-chart/

http://blogs.alternet.org/speakeasy/2010/03/11/shocking-graphic-reveals-why-a-big-mac-costs-less-than-a-salad/

http://consumerist.com/2010/03/why-a-salad-costs-more-than-a-big-mac.html

http://poptech.org/blog/michael_pollans_gospel_of_sustainable_food

http://michaelpollan.com/articles-archive/attacks-on-the-food-police/

http://www.springerlink.com/content/r044880421tl066j/

http://www.cawrecycles.org/issues/fast_food

Image: zak mc