Why You Should Eat at McDonald’s (When You’re in the Developing World)

A McDonald's in Connaught Place, a luxury shopping area in the city center of New Delhi.
A McDonald's in Connaught Place, a luxury shopping area in the city center of New Delhi. Getty Images

Travelers who set out to explore less-visited developing countries often learn the hard way that gastronomical adventures can end in gastronomical disaster. Dinners – however fancy – in Tanzania, Guatemala, and Laos come with an attendant risk of stomach distress because food safety requirements in those countries are not what they could be. Experienced wanderers use two simple and unexpected strategies to avoid spending their vacations bear hugging the bowl: They eat street food and they unapologetically frequent McDonald’s.

In many developing countries, fast food means street meat. And though it may be viscerally unappetizing – in East Africa, goat meat spicing makes the flesh turn green – this genre of food is more often than not cooked in front of the consumer. Local food aficionados love nothing more than seeing a wok sizzling over a garbage fire because they can double check that all their food is being properly prepared. Problems in the developing world generally start when questionable ingredients are undercooked, specifically when greens grown in contaminated water don’t have the cholera sizzled out of them. Some inveterate wanderers refuse to eat any food from closed kitchens for this reason.

Questionable ingredients find their way into restaurants in cities around the world via markets where goods are sold to chefs and suppliers who never see the farms on which they were grown. Creating gourmet cuisine with limited resources is hard enough for a lot of cooks working in less than ideal circumstances; travelers shouldn’t assume that those same chefs are also sourcing their food in a responsible way. They don’t have the time or the money to invest in a massive supply chain.

Fortunately, Ronald McDonald does.

McDonald’s global supply chain is governed by three programs: Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point, a Supplier Quality Management System, and its Distributor Quality Maintenance Program. What is singular about the golden arches is that the latter two initiatives – the former process is used by most manufacturers – are the company programs with standards that are unaffected by local laws and regulations, meaning McDonald’s won’t open franchises in places were its supply chain and staff don’t pass muster. Yum! Brands, which operates KFC, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell and is McDonald’s largest competitor in the developing world, says in its corporate literature that its health “guidelines are translated to local market requirements and regulations where appropriate and without compromising the standards.” This policy is confusing for one obvious reason: If the standards were immune to compromise, they wouldn’t change based on local market requirements. A visit to the KFC in Phnom Penh or Pizza Hut in Cairo makes it all too plain that standards don’t change for the better.

Though McDonald’s, which operates franchises in 122 countries and territories, is not uniformly outperforming KFC on the health front – both companies were caught up in a tainted chicken scandal in China – the Colonel’s reputation has been damaged by a number of different incidents over the course of the last few years. Good enough reason to stick with street food in Managua, Islamabad, and Lagos.

Surprisingly for some Americans, chain restaurants in many countries – notably China and India – don’t try to undercut local prices and instead hawk their treats as luxury goods. If you’re at the KFC in Colombo, Sri Lanka, expect to see a well-heeled crowd. Just don’t join them. There is a McDonald’s nearby and there are food stalls in an alley next to it. Both options are safer than trusting the colonel or most cooks.

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