How many cows are slaughtered each year to make McDonald’s hamburgers?

Dear Cecil:

I was recently told that McDonald's serves about 600 million burgers every year. Out of idle, perhaps morbid, curiosity, I wonder just how many unfortunate cows much die each year to fill this incredible demand.

Cecil replies:

Dear Michael:

There are a lot of variables in this question, so the answer isn’t going to be very exact, but here goes: your average cow (as opposed to my average cow) weighs somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,000 to 1,200 pounds when it’s ready for slaughter. Once it’s been butchered, about 700 to 800 edible pounds remain. Depending on how the carcass is divided up, some 12 to 15 percent of that total weight becomes hamburger meat–which means roughly (very roughly) that one cow is good for some 100 pounds of burger meat.

You were probably floored when you heard that McDonald’s pushes 600 million burgers a year, right? Well, you better sit down, pal, because the actual sales figure as of 1993 (the last time I checked) was more like five and a half billion burgers a year. That’s through the entire worldwide McDonald’s system, of course, not just in the United States.

Unfortunately, since McDonald’s operates on a franchise (individual ownership) basis, there’s no way of knowing how many of those 5.5 billion burgers were Big Macs, how many Quarter Pounders, and how many were those wretched little numbers at the bottom of the line. Quarter Pounders, the best seller, weigh in at 4 ounces (hey, truth in advertising!), while the small burgers are ten to the pound, or 1.6 ounces each. Therefore we must make a completely arbitrary determination that the average burger weighs–oh, let’s make it three ounces. Employing awesome computational skill, we discover that McDonald’s moves about one billion pounds of hamburger per annum. At 100 pounds per cow, that means that the company sends some ten million of the gentle creatures to their doom every year. (We’ll assume all the said creatures are cows, and forget about that silly kangaroo story.) The meat that McDonald’s buys amounts to a staggering 1 percent of the entire American beef market. Anybody for an Egg McMuffin?

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