Supplying McDonald's with all their potatoes means a Canterbury grower has been able to avoid the worst effects of a Covid-19-inspired glut of overseas potatoes on the New Zealand market.
Canterbury-based Hewson Farms produces around 22,000 tonnes of potatoes every year - 12,000 tonnes of which end up as McDonald's fries. However, a 2.6 million tonne surplus of the vegetable in Europe – floods of spuds – is causing headaches for New Zealand growers and processors.
"There has been an enormous glut of potatoes (in Europe) some of which found its way to markets here," says the company's owner Ross Hewson. While he says the impact is hard to gauge, the company is flagging a 10 per cent cut in planting this growing season.
Hewson Farms supply 100 per cent of their potatoes to McCain Foods who process and deliver frozen chips to all McDonald's restaurants around the country – where they are cooked and served as French fries, the fast-food giant's most popular menu item.
McDonald's has committed to continue sourcing its potatoes from McCain and Hewson says without that his operation would not grow potatoes at all: "This is crucial for us and it is heartening to hear they will keep buying locally because potatoes employ Kiwis and there are fewer jobs if the fries are imported," he says.
More than 12,000 tonnes of potatoes are required every year to meet the demand for fries and hash browns produced in McDonald's restaurants with fries taking around three minutes to cook.
McDonald's spokesperson Simon Kenny says it sources the majority of ingredients from local suppliers and has been working with McCain Foods since 1990. McCain supplies the more than 170 McDonald's restaurants with potatoes for 100 per cent of their fries.
"There are 11 types of potatoes approved globally to produce French fries," he says. "Of these, three varieties (Innovator, Russet Burbank and Shepody) grow in Canterbury. Each has low defect rates and ideal tuber length for the right fry time."
"We value the long term relationship we have with our suppliers and we have no plans to change," he says.
New Zealand's potato industry, which is worth $1 billion and amounts to half a million tonnes annually, has been shaken by reports of a huge 2.6 million tonne surplus in Europe where temporary food service closures during Covid-19 lockdowns reduced demand for fries.
In media reports earlier this year, Potatoes NZ said trade data showed exports of frozen potato products from the European Union to New Zealand were up about 50 per cent in June. It called on Kiwis buying chips in a café, restaurant or supermarket to check the label and ensure they were buying products of New Zealand origin.
"They may buy cheaper chips but the long-term consequences really lie with what that does to the New Zealand potato industry," spokeswoman Gemma Carroll was reported as saying. She urged businesses seeking a cheaper option to look at long-term rather than short-term gains.
Hewson says the true impact on his company is hard to determine because last year's planting (this occurs in spring with harvesting taking place between January and May) took place before the pandemic broke out.
Potatoes are grown over a 350ha area of the Hewson Farms property which spreads over a total of 1900ha on the Canterbury plains near Ashburton. Among other crops, the farm has 160ha in onions (all exported), carrots (82ha), kale (25ha) as well as 500ha in wheat and 340ha in ryegrass.
"From ground to restaurant is a simple process. The potatoes are harvested on the farms in Canterbury, delivered to the McCain Foods processing plant in Timaru, washed, quality checked, cooked in the same canola and sunflower oil blend used globally to ensure consistent taste and then frozen for delivery," Kenny says.
McDonald's has strict global criteria to ensure taste, colour and texture of their fries, he says, while McCain Foods complete more than 120 analytical and sensory checks to ensure quality and safety.
To find out more: mcdonalds.co.nz/whats-in-it