McDonald’s to Switch to Fresh Beef in Quarter Pounders

The fast food chain has been using frozen beef since the 1970s

McDonald’s will switch to fresh beef from frozen in its Quarter Pounder burgers at most of its U.S. restaurants by mid-2018.

By Julie Jargon

Updated March 30, 2017 3 53 p.m. ET

McDonald’s Corp. is switching to fresh beef after using frozen meat for more than four decades.

The change, which will involve just its Quarter Pounders for now, marks one of the biggest moves the company has made to turn around its struggling U.S. business.

The chain is facing stiffer competition from traditional fast food rivals such as Wendy’s Co. , which has been touting its use of fresh beef patties in ads for many months, as well as from upstarts like Smashburger Master LLC and Habit Restaurants Inc., HABT which serve bigger burgers made with fresh beef and gourmet toppings.

The move also comes after the company said earlier this month that it wants to return to its burger roots following several failed attempts to broaden its customer base with offerings like salads and sandwich wraps. A large customer survey completed last year revealed that McDonald’s was losing customers mostly to other fast-food chains – not to fast-casual rivals serving healthier fare. And McDonald’s executives told investors that they would focus on improving its core products, like the Quarter Pounder, which has been on the menu since 1973.

The company has always used 100% beef with no fillers, additives or preservatives, but the patties were flash-frozen. Now, the formed patties will be shipped fresh to restaurants, where workers will add salt and pepper to the burgers before searing them on the grill.

The switch to fresh beef Quarter Pounders alone isn’t likely to move the needle for McDonald’s, experts say, and may add complexity to a chain that has been trying to simplify its menu and operations.

“Ultimately I don’t think it’s going to change the quality dramatically and there could be higher costs involved because it’s fresh,” said Darren Tristano, president of restaurant consulting firm Technomic Inc.

McDonald’s executives acknowledge that the company’s success isn’t riding on the fresh- beef switch. “We’re just getting started,” McDonald’s USA President Chris Kempczinski said in an interview Thursday. “We will continue to make moves on the burger line. Whether it’s this move exactly I’m not sure but you should expect we’ll continue to elevate and meet customer expectations about what we can do with our burgers.”

The vast majority of McDonald’s U.S. restaurants will serve Quarter Pounders with fresh beef, but McDonald’s in Hawaii and Alaska won’t because of the difficulty of shipping fresh beef that far. Some locations in airports won’t have fresh beef either due to space constraints in the kitchen, which have to be outfitted with extra refrigerators.

“I’m just terrified about this,” said Paul Morton, a 32-year-old Missoula, Mont., resident whose go-to burger is a Quarter

Pounder. “I just want it to taste like when I was 10.”

Mr. Morton, a course developer for an online exam-preparation company, said consistency and speed are what he values at McDonald’s, so if fresh beef doesn’t result in the burgers tasting the same each time or they take too long to get at the drive-through, he’ll be disappointed. If they taste better than the frozen kind he’s used to “then, awesome.”

McDonald’s, which has ranked at or near the bottom of numerous surveys about burger quality, last year convened a panel of “sensory” experts including chefs and suppliers to study every hamburger on the market and rate them against McDonald’s core burgers on such attributes as tenderness and juiciness. The company has been experimenting with different grinds of beef, buns, toppings, cook times and temperatures with the goal of delivering a burger that comes out hotter and tastes fresher.

Previous efforts to make better burgers to compete with fast-casual chains, however, led to higher price tags that didn’t go over well with McDonald’s cost-conscious customers. As recently as two years ago, McDonald’s introduced a sirloin burger topped with sautéed mushrooms and peppercorn sauce for $5, but it didn’t sell well.

While the “better burger” places charge a premium for their gourmet offerings, Wendy’s and Restaurant Brands International Inc.’s Burger King have been luring in customers with low- priced offers such as four items for $4. McDonald’s has experimented with a number of different “value” offers that have failed to stick and confused price-shopping customers.

While the fresh-beef Quarter Pounders were being tested in Texas and Oklahoma, McDonald’s didn’t change the price, but said once the burgers are rolled out nationally, franchisees will be able to determine whether to charge more for them.

Mr. Kempczinski said the company has put in place rigorous food safety protocols to ensure the beef is properly stored and handled from the processing plant to the restaurants. A third-party auditor will perform food-safety audits at the restaurants.

The chain’s plans for being more competitive aren’t all about the beef. McDonald’s has been taking other steps to win back customers since Steve Easterbrook became CEO two years ago. The company began serving breakfast all day in response to customer demand, removed artificial preservatives from several menu items including chicken nuggets and switched to chicken not treated with antibiotics important to human medicine.

More recently, the company began testing delivery, rolling out mobile ordering and payment and offering table service in some restaurants.

Write to Julie Jargon at
Appeared in the March 31, 2017, print edition as 'Fresh Beef Returns to McDonald’s.'