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Environment

The McB organic hamburger: green or greenwashing?

In Germany, McDonald's has released its first organic hamburger - in response to popular demand, the company says. The product has been criticized, but it could help promote organic agriculture. And, how does it taste?

The burger, which hit stores on October 1, is available only in Germany, and only for seven weeks. It features a 100 percent organic beef patty - in German, "bio" means organic, thus the name: McB.

This in itself has sparked criticism, with some crying deceptive advertising. Yet, organically produced beef is certainly better for the environment than conventional beef.

The McB was also released on the heels of another new McDonald's Germany offering: a veggie burger. Are these signs that the fast food chain is going green?

Not fully organic

McB being prepated at McDonald's in Bonn, Germany (Photo: Sonya Diehn / DW)

McDonald's said it would have been too difficult to separate out - and keep fresh - all the ingredients for a fully organic hamburger

Joyce Moewius, a press officer with the German Association of Organic Farmers, criticized McDonald's Germany as profiting off the valuable organic label - without offering a truly organic burger.

"Organic has a high reputation - McDonald's Germany is trying to improve its image," Moewius told DW. "The rest of the burger stays conventionally produced, unfortunately," she added.

European Union organic standards

include not just use of organic - and regionally sourced - feed. There is a whole range of considerations for livestock, including welfare of the animal, minimizing pollution from waste, and limited use of antibiotics.

Hans Hahne, a businessman who runs 14 McDonald's franchises in the Cologne/Bonn region, emphasized that the patty is indeed the only organic ingredient. "The first segmentation for organic was the beef, as that's the piece that's most important to people," he told DW.

At one of his McDonald's franchises in Bonn, Germany, Hahne demonstrated how the organic beef patty must be separately stored and cooked. "The quarter-pounder patty is completely round, and the organic or 'bio' patty has an irregular shape," Hahne said.

McDonald's McB patty, right, compared to the quarter-pounder patty, left (Photo: Sonya Diehn / DW)

The McB patty, right, is shaped differently so employees don't mix it up with non-organic patties

It would have been logistically difficult - and expensive - to maintain separate organic lettuce, tomatoes, buns and so on, McDonald's said in its defense. "Even down to the ground pepper - that's a grown vegetable that we also would have to look at," said Hahne.

Why Germany?

McDonald's Germany spokesperson Philipp Wachholz described the move as a response to consumer trends.

"Veggie and organic are very big trends in Germany, and we are just responding to those trends," Wachholz told DW. "People would also like to have meat from the region here in Germany," he added. All the organic beef for the McB was sourced in Germany and Austria.

Stephanie Töwe, a sustainable agriculture campaigner with Greenpeace Germany, also sees the move as a response to public sentiment - not only in Germany, but across Europe as well, over the past decade or so.

Women kneeling along rows of organic crops in Germany (Photo: imago/Ralph Lueger)

Could the McB promote organic agriculture in the EU?

"People want to know: Where is my food coming from, who is producing it - they talk about social standards, about ecological standards, about animal welfare standards," Töwe told DW.

The market has changed - especially in Germany, Töwe said. The greater diversity of products - including more eco-friendly offerings - is pushing the fast-food company to develop itself, she believes.

"I think McDonald's realized if it really wants to survive the next 40 years, it has to change, to become greener," Töwe said.

Big players influence market

More broadly, the new McDonald's Germany products are the more recent end of a long development. And such changes can have broad impact - take, for example, the soy moratorium.

In response to a Greenpeace report on deforestation in the Amazon, in 2006 McDonald's stopped sourcing chicken feed from newly cleared rainforest. At the beginning of this year, a

study

found that this policy had drastically reduced Amazon deforestation in the soy sector, from 30 percent to 1 percent.

Sonya Diehn sampling a McDonald's McB organic hamburger (Photo: Sonya Diehn / DW)

The reporter rated the McB at about 3.75 stars out of 5 on the burger scale

"Of course, big players can have an influence on the market," Moewius said. If the organic McDonald's burger were to become established, this would increase demand of organic commodities on a large scale, and could promote organic agriculture in the EU.

McDonald's Germany said that depends on customer response. "Until now, the first feedback is positive," Wachholz said. "A lot of McDonald's markets are watching our promotion very closely right now," he added - indicating potential for expansion beyond Germany.

And success for a burger, of course, also depends on how it tastes. To get a truly rounded report, this reporter had to bite in.

The verdict? The fresh lettuce and somewhat heartier bun made an appealing impression. Although the meat was perhaps a bit dry, the special sauce brought it all together.

Lovin' it? Not sure about that. But all in all, pretty good.

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