Regarding the reader who wrote claiming that McDonald’s hamburgers are made of “dead steer” and not, as you stated in an earlier column, “dead cow” [August 7, March 13]: my source says you’re both right, although you, Cecil, are righter, ounce for ounce. Back in the late 70s my husband put himself through college by working at a factory that produced hamburgers solely for McDonald’s. This was done by grinding together bovine flesh from two very different sources. The lean meat came from dairy cows who had outlived their ability to profitably produce milk. Since dairy cows aren’t fed the fattening-up diet beef steers get, their flesh is exceptionally lean, and thus exceptionally flavorless. To compensate, the workers added fat from beef steers (in chunks that were referred to around the factory as “plate”) during the grinding to achieve a fattier, tastier final product. Since these burgers contain more lean meat than fat, they can be said to contain more cow than steer. (If memory serves, the fat ratio they tried to maintain was 20 percent.) This manufacturing process also sheds a little light on McDonald’s profitability. Since the steer fat is just scrap trimmed away during the butchering process, and the lean cow meat is essentially a waste by-product of the dairy industry, they’re getting both components of their burgers cheaply. Ingenious, no? –Candi Strecker, San Francisco

See? Even my jokes contain deep truths. I queried McDonald’s and got this reply from spokesperson Jane Hulbert:

“McDonald’s hamburgers are 100 percent pure domestic beef without fillers or seasonings. To maintain our customers’ expectations and preference for lean, flavorful hamburgers, we carefully select fine cuts of grain-fed beef and leaner cuts from dairy cattle. This is a typical combination for quality ground beef. More importantly, we have found that this combination results in a flavorful hamburger that also has a significantly lower percentage of fat (20 percent) than the government limits (30 percent).

“Contrary to your reader’s letter, we never under any circumstances use waste or scraps. We use only select cuts of grain-fed beef. Our ground-beef suppliers are designated solely to McDonald’s and their facilities are considered the most modern in the industry. In addition to meeting USDA requirements, our suppliers have worked closely with us to develop very strict, detailed specifications and requirements that are strictly enforced.”

In sum, then: (1) yes, McDonald’s does mix meat from dairy cows and steers–girl cows and boy (OK, ex-boy) cows, if you’ll permit me to murder the terminology; (2) yes, the resultant product does have about 20 percent fat; (3) yes, the boy-cow part does contribute much of the flavor; but (4) no, they don’t use boy-cow scraps, just standard cuts of beef.

To clear up the discrepancy in the fourth item, I spoke to your husband, the guy who worked in the hamburger factory. He said it wasn’t really steer scrap they threw into the grinder, rather what he described as “beef bellies”–fatty cuts of meat having the appearance of bacon. Defending the honor of her company, Jane replied that the stuff didn’t look like bacon and wasn’t beef bellies (a term rarely used in the beef industry) but beef flank, the part below the rib cage–a fine distinction, you may say, but it sounds better. Still, give McDonald’s some credit–what you wind up with is a low (well, lower) fat hamburger, no small thing in a fat-conscious age.


What is the name of the animal that chews its cud and says “moo”? There’s a plural form, “cattle,” but if we want to refer to just one, all we can say is which sex it is: “cow” or “bull.” We know Jumbo is a bull elephant, but what is Ferdinand–a bull “mooing animal”? –Sue and Jim, Baltimore

Hmm. Guess “bovine mammal” won’t cut it, will it? “Ox” might do, but usually suggests a castrated bull. Looks like we’re stuck with “neat” or “beef” (plural beeves). The former is archaic and the latter, in this sense, might as well be. But use it if you want.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Shawn Belschwender.