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McDonald’s Is Rolling Out Fresh Beef Nationwide. What Took So Long?

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For the world’s largest burger chain, no menu change is minor

McDonald's To Use Fresh Meat In Its Quarter Pounders Photo Illustration by Scott Olson/Getty Images

The world’s biggest burger chain is finally serving fresh beef — but only in one very specific iteration: This week McDonald’s officially rolled out out fresh, rather than frozen, Quarter Pounders to all U.S. stores (minus those in Alaska and Hawaii). The fast-food giant has been publicly testing this initiative since mid-2016, when it began serving the cooked-from-fresh burgers at a handful of stores in Texas.

Fresh beef is just the latest move unleashed from McDonald’s “better ingredients” playbook; other recent switch-ups have included removing artificial preservatives from McNuggets and the implementation of cage-free eggs. So why did it take so long for McDonald’s to switch to fresh beef?

As the world’s largest burger chain, with more than 14,000 locations currently operating across the U.S., any significant menu changes are neither quick nor easy. The chain says the decision to roll out fresh Quarter Pounders to most U.S. stores was made in March 2017, and it has spent the last year working to make it happen.

“The switch to fresh beef quarter-pound burgers is the most significant change to our system and restaurant operations since All Day Breakfast,” a McDonald’s spokesperson said in a statement.

With so many stores to supply, McDonald’s is the world’s biggest buyer of beef (as well as pork, potatoes, lettuce, and tomatoes). The mammoth scale and influence of its supply chain means that changes at McDonald’s affect the entire food industry. When the chain decided to upgrade its salads in 2015, swapping iceberg lettuce for a mixture of kale, baby spinach, and romaine, it first had to get its produce supplier on board: Iceberg was nixed from the fields, and the other greens were planted in its place. More than 10 percent of all sliced apples produced in the U.S. go into its Happy Meals; when it announced it would switch to cage-free eggs, dozens of other restaurants and retailers followed suit.

A spokesperson hinted at the scale of the most recent menu changes in corporate-speak, saying the chain “leveraged the strength of our system across corporate, franchisees, and supplier partners” to make both infrastructure and supply chain changes necessary for the fresh beef rollout.

On a more local level, fresh burger patties also affect day-to-day operations for franchise owners and workers.

In addition to a new training program to instruct employees on how to handle and cook the fresh beef, and stepped-up food safety procedures, McDonald’s stores also had to be outfitted with new supplies and equipment, including specially designed packaging “to maintain optimal beef quality” during transport, new containers and trays for handling the patties “for safeguarding against possible food safety issues,” and new refrigerators outfitted with special compressors to hold the fresh beef at a specific temperature.

This week, the chain invited media inside one of its kitchens to witness the fresh beef in action firsthand, and the process seems relatively simple: The fresh patties are stored in blue plastic containers, in order to differentiate them from the frozen patties, which are kept in white containers. Workers must don special blue gloves to touch the patties, which are discarded as soon as they’re finished handling the fresh beef.

Some franchisees have expressed concerns about cooking fresh beef due to food safety concerns. McDonald’s says it has stepped up its existing food safety procedures alongside the fresh beef rollout, but it’s not hard to see how things could potentially go awry: Workers could fail to use the gloves, or forget to remove them after touching the fresh beef, therefore potentially cross-contaminating other food items in the kitchen.

A number of franchise owners have also said they worry that fresh beef could slow down service. Though fresh patties cook faster than frozen, the fresh Quarter Pounders are cooked to order rather than being prepared in batches and plopped under heat lamps like the rest of McDonald’s burgers. Last year during the initial fresh beef tests, Reuters reported that “An on-demand Quarter Pounder takes about a minute longer to land in a customer’s hands than does the original sandwich.”

Some headlines have suggested that, with the introduction of fresh beef, McDonald’s is vying to compete with Shake Shack, but that’s a misguided comparison: The former is the world’s most ubiquitous fast-food franchise largely known for its drive-thrus, while the latter, though expanding rapidly, sells half-bottles of pinot noir and artisan chocolate bars at the register.

Instead, the move is part of the chain’s broader turnaround plan spearheaded by CEO Steve Easterbrook, who took the reins in 2015 and helped propel McDonald’s sales out of a years-long slump, and it seems McDonald’s is merely looking to catch up with some of its closest rivals. Wendy’s, the world’s third-largest burger chain, frequently touts its own fresh-never-frozen beef patties in its marketing, and has waged a particularly savage social media campaign against McDonald’s and its flash-frozen beef in recent months. Wendy’s even slammed its biggest competitor in a Super Bowl commercial this year, urging viewers to “skip the frozen burgers at the Frozen Arches.”

The nationwide launch of fresh beef Quarter Pounders is unlikely to deter Wendy’s. Richard Adams, a former McDonald’s franchisee who now consults for current franchise owners, says it’s quite the opposite. “Wendy’s is going to continue to hammer McDonald’s over having both unfrozen and frozen beef on the menu,” Adams says. “In fact, it will likely be the focal point of Wendy’s marketing for the rest of the year.”

The real question is: Will customers care about fresh beef? Though critics argue that the typical McDonald’s customer clearly isn’t concerned too much about food quality, new Quarter Pounders have gotten some praise for being juicier and more flavorful. Last year, an industry analyst suggested that sales of Quarter Pounders had risen by as much as 35 percent in areas where the fresh beef was being tested.

Other fast-food chains that already use fresh beef include regional favorites In-N-Out and Whataburger, and fast-casual brands Five Guys and Smashburger. McDonald’s implementation of fresh patties could push other rivals that use frozen beef, such as Burger King, to do the same — or be left behind.

Will Fresh Beef Help or Hurt McDonald’s? [E]