McNormalizing the McNugget

Food media literacy is essential to health. Achieving both requires not just unpacking the ingredients of foods but also decoding how the messages about them are packaged and delivered for ideological consumption.

McDonald’s is masterful at (among other things) feeding public demand for “behind the scenes” information to dispel rumors about their food products while at the same time downplaying their potential hazards. The promotional video “What are McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets Made Of?” is McDonald’s own mythbusting counterpoint to the widely circulating rumor that they use infamous pink slime in their McNuggets and burgers.

In an effort “to become more transparent,” McDonald’s compensated Grant Imahara (an American electrical engineer, roboticist, and television host best known for his work on the television series MythBustersto take YouTube viewers on a tour of a Tyson chicken factory in Tennessee.  Amy Steward (“Principal Meat Scientist” for Tyson) educates Imahara as they tour one of five plants in the United States that make McNuggets. Take a look:

Some have criticized the video as a slick marketing move that fictionally portrays, at best, an exceptionally pristine processing plant and, at worst, something carefully staged for the cameras. The reality lies probably somewhere between the two.  A media literate viewer has the ability to separate observation from interpretation. In other words, what do we actually see in the video? And what do we infer from what we see in the video? In other words, how do we know what we know? A core question of media literacy education.

The video emphasizes the technical processes (clearly Imahara’s comfort zone as an engineer) yet he behaves more like a boy at an amusement park. Smiling with eyes twinkling, he gazes upon the rows of headless chicken corpses on conveyor posts (animal rights activists, beware) and exclaims: “Amy, this blows my mind! I mean, there are multiple lines of people making cuts on the chicken just like you would at home or just like a butcher would!” Gazing upon a jacuzzi-size mixing vat combining all the ingredients Imahara exclaims: “I can’t stop watching it. It’s like a lava lamp!” It may be worth noting at this point that a classic lava lamp consists of only 5 simple ingredients (water, mineral oil, paraffin wax, and carbon tetrachloride) whereas McNuggets allegedly contain upward of 40 ingredients.

The point of this video, however, isn’t the substance of the McNugget, it is in the steps taken to create an amusing, awe-some visual display to enamor the viewer with extraordinary spectacle while at the same time convincing the viewer that there is nothing out of the ordinary happening in this processing plant. Along those lines, perhaps the video should be re-titled, “The Making of the McNugget.” If only the Internet could transmit scent, then another facet of this story surely would be told: Would we smell something fishy? Even less transparent are the rows and rows of line workers covered in hairnets, scrubs, and donning very sharp knives—no doubt on their feet all day doing monotonous assembly-line work.

Granted, this video is much less disturbing as compared to the R-rated scenes depicted in  Fast Food Nation. Moreover, there is a simplistic Rube Goldberg-like quality in “What are McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets Made Of?” that overshadows the food adulteration committed to achieve the golden nugget at the end of this technological rainbow. It’s as far from a whole food as you can get.

It is worth noting that YouTube viewers commenting on this video confess to eating (more like hedonistically devouring) McNuggets regardless of their ingredients or nutritional composition, which raises additional concerns about human selection of food based primarily (and in this case, exclusively) according to flavor and texture. Preferential treatment, indeed. Surely celebrity chef Jamie Oliver made this point loud and clear when he demonstrated for a group of children  in the United States the gruesome process involved in making chicken nuggets. With this new knowledge of ingredient composition, the children remained unchanged in their voracious appetite for the chicken nugget. (Here is where I cue a re-mix of the “Star Spangled Banner” and McDonald’s “I’m Lovin’ It!” jingle).

But perhaps none of these food science issues are of concern to consumers. Afterall, industrial technology, sanitization, and assembly-line efficiency are as American as apple pie (which can also be found on the McDonald’s dollar menu, by the way). If McNuggets are not of national concern, then at least food media literacy should be of concern: What are the trade-offs of production and popularity of McNuggets? And are these trade-offs worth the environmental costs and the unintended health consequences that may result? (e.g., obesity, diabetes, heart disease). Something to chew on, America.

For more food media literacy insights, check out Dr. Vanessa Domine’s Fall 2017 undergraduate course (“Food Media Literacy”) through the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University.

In the Know About H20

The Story of Stuff project team is known for their creativity and critical consumer and environmental activism in partnership with empowered marketer Free Range Studios. In 2010 they create an insightful and incisive movie titled, “The Story of Bottled Water.” Anne Leonard is an amiable media literacy tour guide, pointing out to viewers the foolish and nonsensical reasons why bottled water is so popular yet ultimately so wasteful. In just a little more than 8 minutes, Leonard delves fairly deep into the advertising techniques to create the need and perpetuate the demand for bottled water and the corporate advertising techniques to perpetuate the myth. Sadly, our notions of recycling aren’t exactly grounded in reality either. Most salient is that it answers the question: “Which is better for our bodies and environment: Tap water or bottled water?”

Loriana Romano from Canadian-based Teaching Rocks provides a media literacy worksheet to accompany “The Story of Bottled Water” that you can [download here]. It integrates Science, Geography (and Social Studies), and Media Literacy.

But there is a twist in the flow of information (and water) here.

What happens when a public health tragedy rises to the surface, as is the case with the water crisis in Flint, Michigan? It’s enough to lose faith in the safety of tap water, isn’t it?  Corporate execs who bottle water are suddenly the rescuers of innocent victims. And the villains are now the corrupt politicians and city officials of Flint. There is no denying the the layers of socioeconomic and racial discrimination here. Fodder for discussion, indeed.

The following PBS News Hour video (Jan 2016) addresses the essential question, “What is the government’s responsibility when it comes to providing safe drinking water?”

You can download a curriculum guide to accompany this video by clicking here.

Exercise Your Visual Literacy Skills

Media literacy is key to health literacy. But what does media literacy look like in everyday life? Here is one simple yet elegant example of decoding symbols (logos) that we see nearly every day. The explanation underneath each logo is an excellent example of making explicit the intentional stylistic choices to convey meaning. It is a far cry from the conspiracy theory-saturated examples of “subliminal” advertising that were prevalent in the 1970s and 1980s. This infographic may inspire students to engage in their own graphic design (fine arts) in a more intentional, media-literate, way. Think beyond the curriculum boundaries and pair up with an Economics/Personal Finance teacher as part of a more strategic cross-curricular project. Add Photoshop and the creative possibilities are endless. (To coin a famous yet not-without-controvery slogan: “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby.”)