Sunday, November 21, 2010

When is a Pork Rib not a Rib?

The answer: when it is a McRib.

I had a McRib for lunch yesterday.  The last time I had it was a very long time ago, but honestly I don’t remember exactly how it was like except for the memory of its heavy BBQ sauce flavor.  The refresh did not bring any surprises.  For $2.99 plus tax, I got a roll in which there lies an approximately 2 inch by 5 inch thin slab of pork ground drenched in BBQ sauce and sprinkled with few pieces of onion and slices of pickles.  Just like the last time, the only taste left in my mouth afterwards was the flavor of BBQ sauce.  In few years, I would probably not be able to recall if I had a McRib or McNuggets with BBQ dipping sauce!

I have to admit the main reason I went for McRib was the “limited time availability” of McRib nationwide promotion and the “Save the McRib” marketing stomp McDonald’s had pulled.  I simply haven’t had it for a very long time and just didn’t want to pass up this opportunity as the next time it appears in my neighborhood could be another 15 years or more.  If you look up the Wikipedia, you can read a brief history of McRib.  Interestingly, the article mentioned that Germany is the only country where McRib is on McDonald’s permanent menu, not even in China where pork is the main staple.

You may wonder then, like me, why McRib has had trouble to become a part of McDonald’s permanent menu in U.S. (which is obviously a business decision).  Why is the demand so low?  Is it the supply?  Is it cultural?  Is it price?  USDA statistics tells us that pork consumption is a little over 50 lbs in average per capita per year in U.S. which is not that far behind beef (about 60+ lbs).   But if you take a closer look of the 2005 research report of USDA Factors affecting Pork Consumptions on pork consumption pattern , it turns out that processed (as opposed to fresh) pork, such as smoked ham, hotdog, bacon, and lunch meat, accounts for more than 60% of the pork consumption.   The comparable figure for beef is a mere 13% as noted in a companion USDA paper Factors affecting Beef Consumptions.  The same report also showed that about half of the fresh beef are consumed in form of ground beef!  Thus cultural or diet habit has to be a big factor of the phenomenon.

On the other hand, one would find in the same reports data that suggest the social-economic status is a main factor as well.  Lower income households consume more pork and ground beef with non-Hispanic blacks being the dominant on among various race/ethnic groups.  Of course most of us probably have noticed that pork is not a very popular item on most restaurant menus and that higher income people eat out more often in general.

In all, both USDA reports support the intuitive observation that affordability and local environment have been the primary factors in determining what people and how people eat and pass down to their children.   For thousands of years, pig has been domesticated and is the staple of the agricultural societies in most cultures throughout the world.   One reason is that pig is omnivorous and is not difficult to raise in families and small farms with limited resources.  As societies become more and more industrialized and populations are centralized, pigs have not been faring better than cattle or chicken (see Mike Pollan’s The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals) despite the fact that pigs are social and are much more intelligent.  It should not surprise any of us that the production process is not all that different from that of producing chicken nuggets or hamburger patties.

Indeed McRib is not made from pork ribs.  According to a recent article How the McRib is Made Makes Us Question Its Popularity by Margaret Badore, it is mostly ground of pork shoulder molded into rib-back-like patty, cooked and delivered from large processing plants of few contractors, all in 45 minutes from fresh pork to a ready-to-reheat frozen McRib patty.  There is no doubt that industrialization and reorganization of the food supply chain have made more variety of food with consistent quality control available to more people in wider areas.  My only options seem to be: go with the flow, spend more money for free-ranged, humanely handled meat, or become a vegetarian.  Um, let me think about that while I have my KFC’s extra crispy drumstick. 

Talk to you soon!

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