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London 2012: McDonald's unveils flagships

31 August 2010

McDonald's recently held its fourth Open Farm visit as part of a commitment to raise awareness of the key role British farms will play in providing produce for the London 2012 Olympic Games

It was raining when we gathered at the McDonald's restaurant outside Penrith train station in late August. The mission was to find out more about the McDonald's supply chain, particularly now the fast-food brand is one of the sponsors of the 2012 London Olympics.

After being treated to a whirlwind tour of the McDonald's branch, we were taken to The Lakes Free Range Egg Company, about five minutes' drive away, where we met Brian Mullens, a member of McDonald's UK's leadership team; farmer David Brass, who runs The Lakes; and Olympic gold medallist Ed Clancy.

''One reason we've been OK as a business in the past few years is we source a lot of our food from Britain and Ireland,'' Brian explained. ''Each year we spend about £270 million on British and Irish farms, in terms of our produce, and the scale of that given how busy we are as a restaurant business, means we actually source food from 17,500 farms from across Britain and Ireland.''

In fact, with respect to its food sourcing and supply chains, McDonald's sources more than half its produce - 55% - from the British Isles. Its beef is sourced from more than 16,000 British and Irish farmers, while its pork is also sourced from Britain.

''Our beef, all from Britain and Ireland, is boneless cuts of forequarter and flank, which we literally mince, freeze and put in the restaurants,'' Brian continued. ''We use about 380,000 head of cattle a year for our beef, and we buy 50 million litres of milk - all British. So you can see how our shopping basket adds up and how we source it.''

Since 2007, McDonald's has been using British organic milk in its hot drinks. In addition, all milk used in milkshakes, McFlurrys and bottles is sourced from the British Isles.

Brian pointed out much of McDonald's' egg supply comes from farmer David Brass and his group of associate farmers in Cumbria, as well as on the east of the UK and in Northern Ireland. He said McDonald's buys 91 million free-range eggs every year.

''The Olympics is referred to as the largest peacetime catering operation in the world,'' Brian noted. ''McDonald's will have about four restaurants in the Olympics as the world descends on East London. During the Olympics we think each of the restaurants will be three times busier than our busiest UK restaurant at the moment. In Beijing, we served more than 500,000 meals and I think we'll serve more than a million in London.''

Brian was keen to emphasise how much his company has invested in and supported British and Irish farming. ''If you think about how much we've invested, then you realise the opportunity we have to share that knowledge at the Olympics. The reason we're here is to marry the two: to look at how British and Irish farming will feed athletes, the people running the Olympics, the volunteers and the spectators.

''We buy more than 90 million free-range eggs a year, all from the UK, typically from farms such as David Brass'. We thrive on having long-term, stable relationships which allow someone such as David to invest and grow his business, then to invest in things such as higher welfare standards, which helps our business as well as the farmer.''

Which brought us to David Brass, the owner of Lakes End Farm Eggs farm. Describing his farm he said: ''It's a traditional 140-acre Lake District family farm. We've been here three generations, since 1935. I've been retired for about 20 years after flying Harriers in the RAF. Helen decided to get about 200 chickens and sell them for cash at the door, and it's sort of quietly grown over the years to the best part of 70,000.''

About 14 years ago, David and Helen decided to sell their own eggs. It took them a while to set up their own packing station for organic, free-range eggs. ''We decided we wanted to go down the higher welfare and quality route, and that's what we did.''

The relationship with McDonald's started in 2002 after a year or so of initial contact. ''That strengthened our welfare angle and actually the standards at McDonald's is the gold standard of production systems,'' David said. ''We increased production from 9,000 birds in 1996 to 400,000 birds on 50 farms supplying 25 million eggs a year to McDonald's - about 20% of our production.

''All the farms have the same standard. Every farm has trees planted on it for range enrichment and biodiversity plans. If you're going to put trees in, you may as well make it the right trees that encourage red squirrels and barn owls, which in turn creates a less stressful environment.

''We have a £50m turnover this year and employ about 50 people locally - about half our staff could walk to work. We like to think we put money back into the environment. We have 50 farmers who produce eggs for us, primarily in Cumbria. In the Lake District hills it's difficult to find things which make money and bring fast profit.

With respect to farming in Cumbria, David says there was an upside to the foot-and-mouth outbreak in 2001. ''There wasn't an animal left in this part of the world within 10 miles,'' he said. ''But it concentrated people's minds and 65-year-old farmers who would have carried on for another 10-15 years packed up, leaving their farms to their sons and daughters. But the children couldn't live on capital - they needed something which provided them with cashflow and an income.

''The advantage of this younger generation is they're very market-orientated - they want to make money out of farming. So when McDonald's came along with an initiative to plant trees on farms to improve bird welfare, they saw it was going to improve their market as well as the security of their market so we never had a problem.''

One of the big issues for McDonald's has been traceability in the supply chain. This was brought into focus by so-called 'egg fraud' where eggs were being imported from France with no marks on them, placed in a box and sold in the UK as free range. McDonald's insisted on flawless traceability from farm-to-fork. ''We comply by printing the farm code at origin,'' said David.

''The way we do things is sustainable. We've ended up being an example of global sustainability such as vents in our chicken sheds. These are naturally ventilated so they're 70% more energy efficient in summer than a traditional farm ventilator.

''We're always looking at ways of improving our sustainability and we do that by working with other farmers when we can. We have our own chickens but we're getting 330 eggs per bird - in UK manufacturing that's astounding. We have general discussions on best practise and improve profitability.''

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