The Economics Of The McRib

Willy Staley’s Awl post speculating that the comings and goings of the McRib are determined by fluctuations in the price of pork seems to have sparked a lot of interest on the web. Earlier this week I read Whet Moser’s Chicago Magazine profile of the McRib which featured a link to what I regard as quasi-definitive confirmation of this theory, a 2010 profile of Roger Mandigo, the inventor of the meat-minding process that makes reconstituted meat products possible. This is the underlying technology behind not only the exotic McRib but also the banal Chicken McNugget and any number of other fast food products.

According to the article, the “national supply of pork trimmings” is “typically a lot more limited than the supply of beef trimmings.” Consequently, according to Mandigo, “If you suddenly start to buy a large amount of that material the price starts to rise.” Under the circumstances, long-term nationwide availability of the McRib simply isn’t feasible. Buying up that much pig goo would raise the price of goo to the point where it’s not economical to keep selling the stuff. If you’re a believer, you might want to consider this chart of the ratio of pork prices to beef prices:

Note the enormous spike in the ratio associated with the 1994 reintroduction of the McRib. Since that experience, McRib availability has always been billed as temporary or regional in nature, perhaps in order to avoid moving markets.

All that said, I think the real mystery here is not about the McRib in particular but pork’s general absence from the non-breakfast fast food menu. The frequent use of a pork as a breakfast item shows it’s not as if quick service restaurants are somehow incapable of getting their hands on some pork. And the pulled pork sandwich is a casual dining favorite in the United States. And yet, until Chipotle arrived on the scene with its carnitas, it seemed largely absent from the chain scene.