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According to an article based on an interview with University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor Roger Mandingo, the reason McDonalds' infamous McRib sandwich is only available periodically, and for limited duration, is because the popularity of the sandwich drives up the prices of the ingredients:

And to this day, the McRib comes and goes from the McDonald's menu for reasons that have to do with its intense popularity and a national supply of pork trimmings that's typically a lot more limited than the supply of beef trimmings.

"If you suddenly start to buy a large amount of that material," said Mandigo, "the price starts to rise."

As the cost to McDonald's rises, the McRib tends to go out of circulation again. And then the same parts of a hog tend to flow back into the processing lines for Spam, Vienna sausages and other specialized products.

Does the release of the McRib really trigger a surge in pork trimming prices, and does the removal of the McRib from the menu correspond to the prices rising past a certain point?

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    I think this might be a case of cause and effect being backwards. This Awl article posits that the McRib is essentially an arbitrage play - introduced when Pork Prices hit cyclical lows, but not profitable to keep on the menu as they swing back up. McDonalds doesn't need to be the cause of rising prices for them to be a good reason for McDonalds to get out of the McRib business after a few months. – LessPop_MoreFizz Jan 30 '13 at 23:08
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    hardest part of this question will be determining causation – ratchet freak Jan 30 '13 at 23:53
  • I am not sure how this fits into the picture, but in Germany the McRib is a permanent part of the menu. – DevSolar Jan 13 '17 at 16:07
  • @DevSolar the 1999 article in my answer says that Germany is the only place where it is a permanent part of the menu – DavePhD Jan 13 '17 at 16:11
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According to Meat & Poultry 1998:

Ask anyone in the pork industry how the addition or deletion of the McRib from the menu can change pork prices overnight. However, is McDonald's more influential than Russia? On the surface it may appear the Oak Brook, Ill.-based conglomerate wields more influence in this business.

And Franchise Times 1999 says:

McDonald's Corp.'s Indiana operators agreed last month to buy 500,000 pounds of pork from the state's hog farmers to help ease a surplus that has caused U.S. pork prices to plummet. The Indiana franchisees will use the pork to bring back the McRib, a pork sandwich, for seven weeks at their 325 restaurants statewide. The McRib occasionally appears as a specialty item on some McDonald's menus. Indiana is the fifth-largest U.S. pork-producing state, with 4.05 million hogs last year. Hog farmers are grappling with the largest U.S. herd in almost two decades, which has caused a pork glut. Hog futures sank in December to the lowest price since 1971, and cash hogs for immediate delivery fell to the lowest price since 1964. The Indiana franchisees asked McDonald's for permission to revive the McRib. The franchisees, organized as a cooperative, announced the pork initiative with Lt. Gov. Joe Kernan at a McDonald's in Avon, Indiana, an Indianapolis suburb. ...

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