Quarter Pounder image via Cargill/McDonald's
Written by Frank Lopez
From supplying eggs, to beef patties, to fresh, never-frozen patties to a possibly meatless beyond — the relationship between Cargill Meat Solutions and McDonald’s has evolved over the decades, and so are the products they create together.
Starting last year, Cargill Meat Solutions in Fresno began providing beef for McDonald’s fresh beef quarter-pound burgers in its restaurants in California and the West Coast.
It makes about 2.5 million fresh patties a week, and takes about 5-8 days to get the product to stores.
The Fresh Quarter Pounder came about in the wake of another, less successful rollout. McDonald’s dropped its Signature Crafted Recipes line that included the Sweet BBQ Bacon chicken sandwich, the Maple Bacon Dijon Burger, and the Pico Guacamole burger. It was part of an effort to appeal to millennials and to compete against fast-casual restaurants that serve more upscale food but without the table service.
“Based on (customer) feedback, we’ll move away from the Signature Crafted Recipes on our national menu,” McDonald’s said on its website. “Our fresh new Quarter Pounder line-up brings customers more of the craveable, customizable and delicious tastes they love.”
It was an apparent success. At the end of June, McDonald’s USA announced that Quarter Pounder sales increased 30% after the fresh patty version was introduced in May 2018.
Comparing the first quarter of this year to last year, the company sold 40 million more quarter pounders.
The Cargill plant in Fresno was built in 2008 with the sole purpose of supplying McDonald’s frozen patties.
“McDonald’s has a very high quality with standards. We recognized early on, especially with the fresh product, that it was going to be critical for us to hit those high quality standards out the gate, and we did so very early on,” said Jason Adley, director of operations for the Cargill plant in Fresno. “We actually went from meeting expectations, which were set for us on time lines, to where we actually became the ones setting the standards for what other suppliers needed to meet.”
The Fresno Cargill plant is one of five suppliers for the McDonalds system in the U.S. Cargill also has a beef plant in Canada that is the sole supplier for McDonald’s in the Canadian market.
“Fresno is an optimal location for this business given that it affords us ready access to quality cattle, coupled with proximity to McDonald’s major West coast markets,” Adley said.
Cargill and McDonald’s have a nearly 40-year history together that started with Cargill supplying McDonald’s egg products in the 1980s, leading to a deal for beef patties about 15 years ago.
To develop the fresh beef quarter-pound patties, a joint venture was formed between McDonald’s and its suppliers. Cargill’s research and development department worked with McDonald’s menu teams to help develop a product that would meet the demands of consumers, and could be produced in a cost effective and safe manner.
Adley said that Cargill and McDonald’s had an “aggressive timeline” for developing a project of such scale, and it took a full year starting from the time the first conversation about developing the fresh beef patty took place to actually producing them.
One of the positive benefits of the project, Adley said, was that it provided more jobs for the local economy by necessitating the construction of a fresh production room, which required more workers.
Adley said that McDonald’s and Cargill were trying to keep in touch with consumer trends to keep up with ever changing preferences.
“I definitely think that we have better educated consumers now in general,” Adley said. “I definitely think that the fresh patty — something that’s hotter, juicier, more fresh, right off the grill, and goes directly to the consumer — is where we are going to see growth in the future.”
While beef production is Cargill’s main focus, the company has been researching and developing alternative proteins through partnerships with other companies.
“Over the last couple of years, we spent over $1.5 billion on their traditional beef supply chain, but obviously we are committed to feeding the world through whatever means is necessary, so we have looked into those other innovations as well,” said Daniel Sullivan, media relations director for Cargill’s North America Global Corporate Affairs.”
Sullivan said Cargill has three big investments in different alternative protein companies, one of which, Puris Foods, specializes in using pea protein to process the patties. Pea protein can be found in plant based burger patties such as the Beyond Burger.
Sullivan said that the meatless investment is in the single digit percentage compared to that of traditional beef, but that Cargill is always looking at possible avenues for innovation.
The biggest difference between the fresh beef patties and the frozen beef patties is just that: the frozen patties are made with a combination of fresh raw material and frozen raw material, and they are then quick frozen to retain the flavor and longevity, and then sent to restaurants.
For the fresh beef patties, no frozen raw material is used and they are never frozen. Because of that, they have about 1/3 the shelf life of frozen patties, which require a well optimized supply chain.
Adley said there is a notable difference in the taste between a fresh patty and a frozen one.
The Cargill Fresno plant covers about 100,000 square feet and employs about 200 people to keep operations going year round.
“It’s been very fortunate that we have been a part of the journey for the fresh beef portion of it,” Adley said. “We want to continue on with that and partner with them and help them drive innovation as we move forth.”