We want a ‘natural’ Big Mac. Why fast-food giants are finding it tough to deliver

2015-11-04_1641Peter Frost
Copyright © 2015 Crain Communication, Inc.
http://www.chicagobusiness.com/article/20151024/ISSUE01/310249994/we-want-a-natural-big-mac-why-fast-food-giants-are-finding-it-tough-to-deliver

Chain restaurants that want to jump on the all-natural beef, chicken or pork bandwagon better expect to wait in line.

While higher-end restaurants in Chicago and other big cities have long turned to niche natural-meat suppliers, McDonald’s, Subway, Chick-fil-A and smaller companies are competing for a limited supply of “clean-label” meats. In many cases, they’re being forced to get supplies from the other side of the globe or wait years for suppliers to catch up to the types of proteins consumers want today.

“The infrastructure just doesn’t exist today,” says Marion Gross, senior vice president of supply chain management at McDonald’s, the nation’s largest fast-food chain. “And no one can turn on a dime, especially when you do the type of volume we do.”

On a quest to improve the quality of its food and lure back customers who left long ago for competitors perceived to have higher food quality, Oak Brook-based McDonald’s is overhauling a portion of its supply chain. It plans to begin using hogs raised outside of gestation crates, eggs from cage-free chickens and chicken not containing antibiotics used to treat humans. On Oct. 19, the company said it also will begin serving sustainable beef in some areas next year.

But the systemwide changes won’t begin to take effect in the United States until 2017, and they won’t be finished until 2025, because of McDonald’s huge size.

U.S. meat suppliers, knowing they’re missing an opportunity, are investing millions of dollars to change farming practices and acquire “natural” brands to fill growing demand. But change takes time.

The primary factor driving deals “is the pursuit of growth and moving into markets where the growth is,” says Heather Jones, a BB&T analyst based in Richmond, Va. “It’s completely being driven by the consumer, and these companies realize it is way cheaper to buy than it is to build this on your own.”

Big meat producers like Austin, Minn.-based Hormel Foods, which in May agreed to buy Applegate Farms for $775 million, and Salisbury, Md.-based Perdue Farms, which bought Natural Food Holdings and its Niman Ranch brand in September for an undisclosed price, are augmenting their portfolios with branded organic and natural products primarily to compete better at retail, where consumers make decisions based on the label.

The takeovers also should help big meat processors learn from the upstarts and apply the lessons throughout their mass-market-sized operations. Randy Day, president of Perdue Foods, the food division of Perdue Farms, says the acquisition of Chipotle’s pork supplier, Niman Ranch, will help his company continue “a slow, thoughtful” expansion into antibiotic-free pork without compromising what made Niman successful in the first place.

Hardees and sister burger chain Carl’s Jr. had to look outside the U.S. to Australia to find enough steroid-free, antibiotic-free, grass-fed beef to supply its 3,000 U.S. restaurants for an unexpected hit. Its “all-natural” quarter-pound burger performed so well in limited tests that the chains are keeping it on menus indefinitely. The sandwich, which retails for $1.50 more than a conventionally sourced burger, has been the company’s best-selling new beef product over the past two years, says Brad Haley, chief marketing officer for Carl’s Jr. and Hardees, subsidiaries of CKE Restaurants of Carpinteria, Calif.
“Earlier generations were more concerned about counting calories, and this generation is more concerned about counting chemicals,” Haley says. “And this is not a surprise to our suppliers. They’re getting asked by everybody for this, but we just couldn’t get enough in the U.S. to meet our volume demands.”

DEMAND GROWS

Roti Mediterranean Grill, a Chicago-based fast-casual chain with 21 restaurants, likewise tapped Australian and South American cattle for dishes that will showcase the grass-fed, pasture-raised beef its customers have come to expect, CEO Carl Segal says.

“People absolutely want it,” he says. “There’s such a tight supply in the U.S. right now. Until the big producers realize there’s more and more demand for (natural meat) we’re still going to (have) tight supply, which is going to keep pricing very high. It’s frustrating.”

Market share for organic or natural chicken, beef and pork remains small. Aside from antibiotic-free chicken, which is 6.5 percent of the total chicken market by pounds, no other natural or organic meat holds more than 3.6 percent of its category, according to data from Chicago-based market research firm IRI/FreshLook.

But while analysts say it’s unlikely the majority of consumers will pay hefty premiums for grass-fed beef or chickens raised without antibiotics—supermarket prices of such products sometimes are nearly double those of factory-farmed meat—sales are outpacing conventional products by as much as a factor of six, the IRI data show. And they might have increased even faster if more supplies were available, analysts say.

“It’s going to take time for the farming and (agriculture) community to produce as much organic and antibiotic-free product as demand dictates,” says Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic, a Chicago-based market research firm.

And demand is growing. Subway wants to convert to chicken raised without antibiotics next year and eliminate antibiotics from all meat within 10 years. Chick-fil-A plans to sell only chicken that is entirely free of antibiotics within four years. Earlier this year, Wal-Mart Stores asked its meat and egg suppliers to curb their use of antibiotics and provide animals with more humane living conditions. Perhaps wisely, it didn’t set a deadline.

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