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Top 10 Secrets of the McDonald’s Corporation

by Steve Etherwood
fact checked by Rachel Jones

It’s no secret that McDonald’s food is unhealthy and the company is prone to scandals. But it might surprise you just how unhealthy it really is and how many scandals there truly are. The company—the single largest restaurant corporation in the world and one of the largest in general—has a long history of mistreating its managers, employees, customers, and even the food itself. As a result, they’ve stacked up a lot of skeletons in their many closets around the globe. Though every secret in this list is a matter of public record, it’s surprising how few people are aware of them. For McDonald’s, secrets are less about ‘is the information out there’ and more about ‘can we make people forget about it with our new, creepy Hamburglar.’ Here are ten open secrets that McDonald’s would love you to ignore.

10 The Vegetarian Options are Not Vegetarian

The Untold Truth Of McDonald’s Fries

For decades, McDonald’s listed its french fries as vegetarian options. After all, it’s just potatoes, salt, and vegetable oil, right? Wrong. McDonald’s fries contain 19 different ingredients, one of which is beef fat. The company tried to hide this by listing the beef fat as simply “natural flavoring” for years but they were eventually found out.

Naturally, the company was sued for its false claims, most famously by several prominent Jewish and Muslim groups. McDonald’s’ use of beef fat was neither kosher nor halal, and so by lying about it, the company had forced millions of people to unknowingly violate their own religious beliefs. McDonald’s was forced to settle for undisclosed tens of millions of dollars with an assortment of groups but only removed the beef fat from non-U.S. fries.

9 “Super Size Me” Actually Worked

Super Size Me / Scene From Film

In 2004, Morgan Spurlock released his documentary “Super Size Me,” in which he ate only McDonald’s for an entire month to demonstrate the unhealthiness of its food. Fitting the film’s name, Spurlock always supersized his meal if an employee offered. As expected, Spurlock’s health was atrocious at the end of the month. Many viewers were left thinking ‘well, duh’ and moved on. But the film did have a significant effect on McDonald’s.

The supersize option, which had existed for 12 years at that point, was removed from the McDonald’s menu just six weeks after the film premiered. The company denied that the film had any impact on its decision, but the odds of that coincidence occurring on its own are minuscule.

8 The McAfrika

The One Burger McDonald’s Wishes You Would Forget About

You might assume from the name that this was a racism controversy (no, those are later in the list), but really the McAfrika was just a story of terrible marketing and management. In 2002, McDonald’s released the McAfrika, and every aspect of its release was flawed.

For one, the burger—which was just beef, cheese, and tomatoes on pita bread—was marketed as an “authentic” African recipe, which makes you question if McDonald’s knows the definition of the words “authentic,” “African,” “recipe,” and “pita.” And the sandwich was released at the height of a severe famine in South/Central Africa, so selling fattening food named after the area was a bad look. Even worse is that the burger only came out in Norway, a country that is about as non-African as it gets and one of the richest nations in the world. The burger did not live a long life.

7 They Don’t Clean Their Machines

This is a weird one because there are actually two secrets wrapped up in one here. The McDonald’s ice cream machines are famous for always being out of service and the company is constantly mocked for it. The truth is that often when an employee tells a customer that the machine is out of service, it’s actually because the machine is in the middle of its nightly four-hour self-cleaning process. That seems good because four hours of cleaning a day must make the machines exceptionally clean, right?

Actually, the machines can be filthy. That self-cleaning process for the ice cream machines only cleans the main internal chambers, not any outside trays or nozzles. And it’s not just the ice cream machines. At any given point, there is a decent chance that most of the machines in any McDonald’s location are dirty. As many employees have confessed on assorted Reddit threads, Quora, and other anonymous locations, many of the machines are a pain to clean, and without much incentive to clean them, employees will just let them get dirtier and dirtier until they grow mold.

6 Just How Often They’re Sued

More than 50 former franchisees sue McDonald’s for racial discrimination

The answer: constantly. And for every reason you could think of. Aside from the beef fat incident mentioned above, a lawsuit was raised because supervisors in three locations had complained that there were “too many black people in the store” and fired most of their black employees. Then there’s the time that 52 former owners of over 200 stores sued McDonald’s for being forced into “financial suicide missions” when white owners were not. 

Then there’s the time that one franchise had forced workers into 25-hour shifts without overtime pay, which the company defended. A quick stroll through news outlets will reveal dozens of other major suits, including their most famous: the hot coffee incident.

5 The Hot Coffee Incident was Their Fault

The Truth About the Infamous McDonald’s Hot Coffee Incident

The hot coffee incident was a widely publicized case in which an elderly woman sued McDonald’s because its coffee gave her third-degree burns. The plaintiff, Stella Liebeck, was heavily ridiculed in the media, with most major outlets labeling her claim as a textbook frivolous lawsuit. In reality, McDonald’s lost the case and was forced to pay Liebeck damages.

As much as the media demonized Liebeck, it turns out she had been (mostly) in the right. McDonald’s coffee was actually almost 40 degrees hotter than normal coffee, and literally, hundreds of people had complained about its temperature to McDonald’s before. Liebeck even had to get skin grafts to replace the skin that the hot coffee tore off of her pelvis.

4 Their Health Initiative are Totally Fake

Is Anything Healthy At McDonald’s? | With Full Menu Review

Over and over, McDonald’s promises to make their menu healthier in one way or another, and it always comes with a big asterisk. A recent marketing campaign claimed that McDonald’s burgers would no longer contain preservatives. About a third of them still do. Before that, a campaign made waves when it promised to remove high-fructose corn syrup. But only from the buns. You can still find it in dozens of other items, including every sauce that comes on those buns.

About the same time as the removal of supersizing, McDonald’s started offering salads. Of course, a quick look through the nutritional facts will show that those salads contain even more calories than the burgers once the dressing and cheese are put on. Still, another campaign around that time promised to simplify menu items and lower their number of ingredients. Again, a quick look at the official ingredients listed on their website shows how dishonest this claim was. (I counted the ingredients in a standard Big Mac, and it was a staggering ~70, including the high fructose corn syrup they claimed to have removed.)

3 They Served Tainted Meat and Didn’t Care

McDonald’s Food Scandal in Shanghai! | China Uncensored

In 2014, a reporter secretly filmed inside a food-processing plant in China that belonged to the OSI Group and discovered abhorrent conditions within. Workers touched food with their bare hands, dropped it on the floor, repackaged it, and even repackaged expired meat. The OSI Group supplied meat to many major fast-food chains in China, and upon learning of its subpar conditions, all of them cut ties with the company. All except one, that is.

McDonald’s responded to the controversy by blatantly lying, saying that they had never received any meat from that plant or any other OSI-owned plant. This was quickly found out to be untrue. Then, in defiance of common sense and ethics, the company decided to keep using the OSI Group as their source of chicken and beef in China. And again, every single other company—Burger King, Starbucks, Pizza Hut, KFC, and others—had cut ties with the OSI Group immediately.

2 There’s a Best Time (and Way) to Eat There

Mystery Shopping: How Does It Work?

This is true for most restaurants, as well. To maintain certain standards of service, corporations rely on mystery shoppers, undercover agents who buy items and rate the food, cleanliness, and service. It’s a common practice, and anyone who has ever helped run a restaurant can tell you: the shoppers tend to come at certain times. That makes those times the best times to eat there.

Whether directly or not, employees are taught to be on the lookout for mystery shoppers and give them their A-game. Mystery shoppers tend to come at busy times like breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and they tend to order in similar ways. They have to order a certain number of items, for example, and they always have to leave with a receipt. So ordering from McDonald’s at the busiest times and asking for an itemized receipt is likely to nab you the best service possible.

1 The Monopoly Game Was Fake

MCMILLIONS Official Trailer (HD) HBO Docuseries

The McDonald’s Monopoly game was a favorite of mine as a kid, so it’s heartbreaking to hear that, for five years, it was all fake. From 1995-2000, almost none of the top prizes were awarded to McDonald’s customers. The winning pieces simply weren’t on public items. 

Instead, the most valuable pieces were all given to friends and family of a man named Jerome Jacobson. Jerome was the head of security at Simon Marketing, the company with which McDonald’s ran the game. He was able to get to the pieces before they went out and keep all the most valuable ones secret. Knowing he couldn’t cash them in himself, he gave them all to his family and friends and asked for a piece of their prize money in exchange. All told, his social circle racked up $24 million in prizes before he was caught.

fact checked by Rachel Jones