Until this week, Russians blissfully chomped away on their two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame-seed bun as if it were part of their birthright. The McDonald’s restaurants here always seem to be overflowing with young and old, Beeg Mak and Koka-Kola blissfully in hand. You could say they were lovin’ it.
Then, on Monday, Russia’s chief sanitary doctor and head of consumer protection offered a chilling warning, telling Russians to stop eating what they call gamburgers.
“This is not our food,” declared the doctor, Gennady Onishchenko.
A McDonald’s meal may not be happy for the bureaucracy — suspicious as it is of what the West may be cooking up next — but the younger generation gives it a big Like!
By Tuesday, the 61-year-old doctor was being hooted down on social media, now inhabited by a number of Russians who grew up with the Golden Arches as a desirable fixture on the landscape. The first McDonald’s opened in Moscow in 1990 and produced such huge crowds that getting paid to stand in line for someone else turned into a nice part-time job.
On Tuesday, those who didn’t eat hamburgers vowed to start. Others promised to give up borscht, the beet soup that actually comes from Ukraine, goulash (Hungarian) and even kompot (stewed fruit suspected of emerging in fifteenth-century Poland, although it has become a staple of the Russian diet).
“It’s not ours, Comrades,” went one tweet.
Onishchenko came out against the hamburger after a woman told a radio station on Monday that she had found — okay, this is gross — worms in the wrapping of her McChicken sandwich on Sunday. He dispatched the McChicken as “an excuse for food” in an interview with the Interfax news agency and then issued his warning:
“I would like to remind our fellow citizens that hamburgers, even without worms, are not a good choice of a meal for residents of Moscow and of Russia. This is not our food.”
McDonald’s said in a statement that it had found no “foreign objects” in the McChicken sandwich, and that quality and safety were its top priority. The company said that its own employees and independent agencies regularly inspect its food from farm to counter.
The statement concluded with a crafty vote of confidence in Onishchenko: His own consumer rights agency, Rospotrebnadzor, regularly inspects McDonald’s restaurants. And that, the company said, “guarantees the quality and safety of our products.”
People here like McDonald’s — it’s a country where most have not yet started to count grams of fat. Russia now has more than 300 of the restaurants, where sleek urbanites sit with their iPads next to wide-eyed tourists from the countryside, savoring the lattes that cost so much less than elsewhere, indulging the national passion for ice cream.
The doctor’s in for a battle on this one.
Onishchenko, born in Kyrgyzstan to a Ukrainian father, has defended Russians against American chicken, Georgian wine and Ukrainian cheese, among other perils to the national well-being. Often those threats have coincided with political malaise.
In 2006, as relations with Georgia deteriorated, the doctor banned Georgian products — including its ever-popular wine and Borzhomi mineral water — on health grounds. War with Georgia has come and gone, but lasting peace remains elusive, so don’t look for a drop of the wine here.
Gas prices have been roiling Ukrainian-Russian relations, and suddenly Ukrainian cheese threatened indigestion and had to be banned, although in May, Onishchenko promised to let small batches in under a “special regime.”
In 2010, during a dispute over imported American chicken (Onishchenko objected to treatment with chlorine, and at the time domestic producers were seeking protection), he promised to permit imports again, but buyer beware.
“Do not be upset,” he told Russians. “If you are fond of American chicken legs, you will get them soon. But Russian legs are better. There are less antibiotics and hormones in them. Our legs are better. Buy our legs.”
In June, he attacked sushi, which inexplicably has become tantamount to the national food, with a sushi restaurant in nearly every Moscow neighborhood and even one in every provincial town. The next month, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev was making a provocative trip to the Kuril Islands, which infuriated Japan because of disputed ownership.
“We are people with established traditions and must not fall for exotic types of food,” Onishchenko said. “Eat what is inherent to your genetics.”
Last winter, he warned Russians planning to demonstrate against the government to reconsider: They could catch cold.
As for the traditional diet so gentle to the national stomach? Ah, the sausages glistening with fat, tea filled with so much sugar it can barely dissolve, stacks of bread, fried potatoes, generous spoons of sour cream and, of course, the ubiquitous kotleta: sizzled ground meat with onion and a nicely preserved cucumber (that would be a pickle) on the side.
Could a gamburger by any other name smell as sweet?