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Fresh, Never Frozen

OK, I just ripped off the Wendy’s hamburger tagline with this headline. But I don’t think they’ll care because:

  1. They love the slogan and want it spread far and wide.
  2. They, of all the fast food chains, have the warmest and fuzziest relationship with farmers (and the farm media, I think).

They’re the only chain that bothered to stop by the Cattle Industry Convention this week in Nashville and say thanks to cattlemen for producing quality beef for Wendy’s single, double, and triple burgers. They brought their mobile burger truck, set up just outside the convention center, and gave away a few thousand Wendy’s single burgers. 

A small team of Wendy’s executives came from Ohio and mingled with beef producers in the tradeshow and shared the Wendy’s story.

“We just came to say thanks, and that we appreciate what you do,” Dennis Hecker, the director of Wendy’s quality assurance programs, told a friendly crowd of Wendy’s admirers in a short presentation. 

Hecker said their burgers are made from 100% steer beef, all grain-fed in North America, and under 42 months of age (no cull cows). Since the company was founded with one store in 1969 by Dave Thomas in Columbus, Ohio, and named after his daughter, they’ve adhered to “never frozen.” 

It was only about a year ago that the company began aggressively promoting the “Fresh, Never Frozen” tagline in their marketing efforts, including TV ads. The slogan will get its biggest splash yet on Sunday in the first half of the Super Bowl. 

The 30-second spot, which cost a few million dollars (they wouldn’t say exactly) and will be seen by 120 million people, was early released this week and shown to the cattle convention crowd. It pokes fun, in true Super Bowl tradition, at the other burger chains and their frozen beef. 

“We’re so cool, we don’t need to be frozen,” quipped one of the Wendy’s executives.

Hecker said the logistics of serving 5 million hamburger patties every day that are fresh and never frozen across their restaurant locations is an enormous undertaking. From the point an animal is harvested at one of eight geographically-dispersed packing plants they use through contracts, they have six days to get the chilled meat to one of 19 processing centers. Then they have just 13 more days to get it to one of 385 distribution centers and delivered on to the 6,300 restaurants and served up to a customer. That’s 19 days from harvest to consumption, or else it’s really not fresh anymore, he said.

“Our trucks make up to 18,000 deliveries every week of fresh beef to one of our restaurants. Every Wendy’s delivery truck has an RFS communication device that monitors temperature and sends a message if the temperature isn’t where it needs to be. Alarms go off back at headquarters,” Hecker said.

Carl Loredo, the Wendy’s director of beef marketing, said that three out of four people in the U.S. eat at least one hamburger a week, and Wendy’s has to stand out from the crowd. 

“Fresh is the difference in taste,” he says of their square burger patties. “When we started the never-frozen campaign a year ago, about three out of 10 of our customers understood it. Now that’s up to 4 out of 10. We’re making progress.”

Both Hecker and Loredo said that as the burger company has listened to consumer concerns about food safety, they’ve taken into account the issues of farmers and ranchers, too. None is bigger than the topic of antibiotic use, in which many consumer activist groups have demanded that beef (and other meats) be produced without antibiotics.

While other food chains, such as McDonalds and Chick-fil-A, have made major public statements about going to meats produced without antibiotics ever, Wendy’s has not. 

“We started our own animal welfare audit program back in 1999, and have done over 1,500 audits of our suppliers since then,” said Hecker. “Our antibiotic policy has been that you should treat animals that are sick with antibiotics, it’s the humane thing to do. When they recover, they can go back into the production system. 

“We don’t make outlandish statements or claims on this. Yes, we listen to our customers, but any changes we make will be science-based, and will consider the interests of producers and other partners, too.”

The pressure on the antibiotic point, he continues, is enormous. Consumers want transparency, and competitors will hammer away at Wendy’s policies. One thing Wendy’s has already announced is that by 2019, all suppliers of Wendy’s hamburger will be Beef Quality Assurance-certified, a program from the cattle industry that requires training and auditing for proper animal handling and care. 

“Your standards are what we use to talk to consumers,” Hecker told the cattle producers. 

Wendy’s is also a collaborator in the Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, another industry effort to get ahead of consumer activism. “We want to be part of the solution,” he said.

The Wendy’s officials said they hear from people on all sides of the antibiotics issue. Their CEO, members of their board of directors, and most of their employees have had their emails hacked with messages screaming “Why won’t you do this?” 

Consumer activists fall into two categories, they said. There’s a rational crowd that fully understands the antibiotic issue and is simply concerned about maintaining viability of those necessary for human health. You can dialogue with them. The other group is against everything, and dialogue is much more difficult. “We hear it from all sides,” said Hecker.

Likely, Wendy’s hinted, they too will make further statements on their antibiotic policy going forward, and it may come later this year. 

“It’s an ongoing discussion, and we’re fully engaged with beef industry experts on this topic, including university veterinarians,” said Hecker.

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