If you think you can dig up the potatoes from the garden and sell them to McDonald’s … well, you’re wrong. Let’s walk a potato through that evaluation process to see just how strenuous it is.

Jaynes lynn
Managing Editor / Ag Proud – Idaho

Before a potato ever gets planted, the variety must be approved with the processor. Each company (McDonald’s or otherwise) provides a list of specifications and a process for approving a new variety. The corporate food processing world understands that farmers deal with pests, weeds, soil health, weather and a variety of related issues and must, from time to time, introduce varieties that make them more cost-effective to grow. Food processors are all for that – as long as their specifications are also met. Hence begins an oftentimes 15-year journey for a new variety seeking approval.

Potato processors are tasked with identifying potato varieties that will satisfy the restaurant customers’ criteria, varieties that potato growers can grow economically and varieties that hold up under storage and processing. It’s a tall order. And that’s why new varieties are constantly being developed and refined. The tuber in the dirt isn’t the end goal. The tuber that makes it through bugs and disease and long-term storage has a great advantage but still hasn’t reached the goal. It’s the fry. It’s that french fry in the hands of the busy mom, the hollow-legged teenagers, the fussy kids in the car seats – that’s the goal. And what the consumer doesn’t know is: That very french fry could well have been 15 years in the making.

“McDonald’s actually has a four-page document that outlines the variety approval process. And in addition to that, there’s a global sensory reference manual – or global testing protocols,” says McCain Foods agronomist Tom Salaiz. This, of course, comes after the letter of intent, business guidelines and other required documents. “There are deviations or exceptions for this approval process that exist depending on the degree of risk, the extent of the request for approval or the scope of the area that's being requested, but ultimately the customer sets the path, and we have to be understanding and work with them very closely on that path.”

That process might take a year or two. If it passes this phase, the food processor and developer can get to work on seedstock quantities. Then there will be a period of collaboration and education with growers on any growing or handling issues and scheduling logistics. Then maybe (just maybe) a few producers will be ready to grow the new variety. But remember, it’s not approved officially yet.

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“McDonald's understands the importance of variety work,” Salaiz says. “They understand the challenges that are being faced climatically and from a climatic standpoint globally. And they understand that varieties give us and our growers the best chance of being able to deal with those challenges.”

Upon harvest, the crop will be evaluated at the food processor facility for color, solids, size, defects due to bruising or other insect and disease damage.

Then multiple french fry runs will be made in volumes that ensure consistency. It takes 15 to 20 acres of raw product to produce enough raw material to run through a plant (in a four- to six-hour run) in a production line. Adjustments to the processing side are made at this point, to ensure smooth future runs. “If the solids are too high, we need to scale back. If some of the processing steps work but they’re too slow, we need to scale up. Sometimes we have to draw off additional moisture or make other adjustments,” Salaiz says. “Each variety has a specialized run – from blanching, cutting, drying, frying, freezing and packaging.” Salaiz says each of the larger players in fast-food restaurants (Wendy’s, Burger King, etc.) has a specific product “recipe” that includes specific requirements.

But even if potatoes are sampled and tested at the early years of its evaluation process, it’s not until the plant scales up the volume to large enough amounts that processors start to see whether some issues encountered early on will be a significant problem, and whether it can be overcome through management or not, Salaiz says.

“Essentially, [at this point] we're having to produce a McDonald’s product with a variety that's not yet approved. So what do we do with that product once it's produced? We have to put that into a non-Mc label … so we’ve made product for that label, but yet we can't sell it into that line yet. That creates some costs. So we have packaging issues and obviously some scheduling adjustments as well,” Salaiz says.

Then the customer (McDonald’s or other) takes the french fry to their “consumer validation” panel. The discrimination panels will taste-test the fries and make recommendations. Here are a few things they look at:

Before frying:

  • Even strip uniformity
  • Bright in color
  • Minimum number of defects

After frying:

  • Even golden color (no sugar tips)
  • Some natural highlights (but no mottling)
  • Light, crisp bite
  • Mealy but moist interior
  • Fresh baked-potato flavor
  • Clean oil flavor

These are criteria that global fast-food chains look for from a french fry supplier. McDonald’s, Burger King, Zaxby’s or any other customer has some variation of these criteria, depending on customer preference, but many attributes are similar.

And then, maybe just then … the processor will gain approval to grow the new variety.

Several varieties have been approved in North America for McDonald’s, including Shepody, Ranger russet, Russet Burbank, Umatilla (1999), Blazer (pre-2012), Clearwater (2016) and Ivory (2016). Recent approvals were received for Dakota russet (2022), King russet (2022) and Teton russet (2022).

While approval processes might take only two or three years, if that is added to the potato variety being bred for those additional approvals, it easily can take 12 to 15 years to bring a new variety to market.

So the next time you’re sitting at a drive-through window at a fast-food place and have to wait two or three minutes for your fries to be ready, just remember that while two or three minutes seems like a long time, it really took 15 years to get it to you.