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Could Fresh Beef Spell Disaster For McDonald's?

Franchisees worry a switch from frozen beef could be fraught with problems


McDonald’s began testing fresh (rather than frozen) beef in a handful of stores earlier this year, and considering the subpar quality of its burgers, that certainly sounds like a good thing. Or does it? A recent survey of McDonald’s franchisees suggests store owners are concerned that the introduction of fresh burger patties could end up spelling disaster for the brand.

McDonald’s has been working to refresh its image (and its bottom line) for the last several years; fresh beef would, ideally be a welcome change for consumers. A number of its competitors, such as Wendy’s — not to mention all of the higher-end burger chains like Shake Shack — already use fresh beef.

"The only customers who care are the ones who don’t eat at McDonald’s."

But in a survey conducted by financial services group Nomura, 24 McDonald’s franchisees warned against the addition of fresh beef, arguing it could slow down service in a restaurant that prides itself on speed. Even worse, the beef could lead to contamination issues. And if Chipotle’s recent problems are any indication, a food safety crisis can nearly destroy a brand.

One franchisee surveyed by Nomura said that the introduction of fresh beef would be good for "McSpin" — i.e., publicity — but most expressed reservations. "The only ones who care are the ones who don’t eat at McDonald’s," said one franchisee.

"My father was a McDonald’s franchisee in the early days when McDonald’s had unfrozen meat," said another franchisee. "He says trying to do it today, given the size of the system, would be a disaster."

"I guess the main question is where it’s being processed and how far it’s traveling," says Jaydee Hanson, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Food Safety. "A lot of meat-packers are located in the middle of the country, and if you’re shipping a carcass from Nebraska all the way to New York, you have some real chances for contamination. More pathogens could be introduced along the way."

Another way to the meat to become contaminated would be through the grinding process. "If you’re grinding the meat and shaping it into hamburgers in-house, that would be another way for it to be contaminated," Hanson says, adding that Chipotle began centralizing the preparation of some of its ingredients in the wake of its E. coli outbreak.

If you’re shipping a carcass from Nebraska all the way to New York, you have some real chances for contamination.

"As long as you’re following all of the proper food safety steps, [fresh beef] should be as safe as frozen and taste fresher," he says. "Of course, all the fast food chains are working with pretty tight profit margins. If they’re going to be doing this, they’ll certainly have to spend more money on training staff."

When asked about the negative aspects of introducing fresh beef to the chain’s menu, McDonald’s franchisees used phrases like "food handling issues," "one heck of a mess," and "higher costs."

One response was even more strongly worded. The most dangerous possibility, one franchisee said, would be "an uncaring employee doing something that puts the entire system at risk. We are the lightning rod. Chipotle will be a walk in the park if we have an incident."

Others said that beef isn’t really the problem. The quality of a burger "depends on the grill person," said one franchisee, who added that the main issue is the quality of the buns: "Same old boring bread. Over half the restaurants in the country can’t toast both sides of the McClub."

In an interview with Eater, Kathryn Slater-Carter, a former McDonald's franchisee, says her relationship with the chain is "done." She owned two locations in California — one in a mall food court and another a drive-thru — for thirty years. When she expressed concerns (including some related to food safety), the corporation ignored her, she claims.

"Once McDonald's instituted breakfast all day, it became a real issue," says Slater-Carter. "Not only did we not have the space, we were concerned for food safety."

The kitchens in most McDonald's are small but, if it's a low-volume store, size isn't much of an issue. As Slater-Carter says, cooks can simply "divide refrigerator space and grill space." The problem with breakfast foods, though, is that they require different temperatures and cooking times than, say, a burger.

Food safety is a concern but not a deal breaker.

"You don't want to cook eggs on a grill being used for hamburgers — different temperatures and flavors don't mix," she adds. "Time and temperature are absolutely critical for maintaining food safety. In a public venue, where you have people with all different levels of immune compromise, you have to be absolutely rigorous about food safety. We didn't see how it was going to work."

A source with knowledge of the company, who wished to remain anonymous, said that the Nomura report only cites "disgruntled" franchisees: "The bright side to the test is that it has been going on for over six months. If there were any food safety concerns [McDonald’s] would have yanked this test already."

The source added that, while food safety "is a concern, it's not something that would be a stumbling block. Wendy’s, Five Guys, Shake Shack all do it.... and if they can, we can too."

McDonald's Cautiously Tests Fresh Beef at 14 Locations [Eater]

McDonald's Sales Are Up, Thanks to All-Day Breakfast [Eater]

All McDonald’s Coverage [Eater]