At McDonald’s, will “never frozen” pay off?

The big thaw. Wendy’s has been claiming for years that its hamburgers are made from beef that is “fresh. Never frozen.” (Burger King questioned that statement back in 2008, and The National Advertising Division of the Council of Better Business Bureaus ruled that the claim was justified.)

The beef in Shake Shack’s burgers? “Never frozen,” says its website.

“Chipotle will be a walk in the park if we have an incident.”

McDonald’s has been considering joining the crowd. Testing started in July in Dallas, and is now in Oklahoma (less than 1 percent of its domestic locations).

We’ve got a weird trade-off here. One the one hand, the idea that non-frozen ground meat is necessarily better may be just a matter of marketing, particularly if the freezing and thawing is done carefully. So there is an aura about anything unfrozen which may be mostly subjective.  On the other hand, the idea of switching your supply chain–on the basis of that message–from frozen to unfrozen for such massive amounts of ground beef sends shivers through the blood of many of McDonald’s franchisees, given the resultant increased risk of contamination. Then again, Wendy’s has been proceeding this way for years and not had its Chipotle moment … yet.

Since its series of contamination debacles last year, Chipotle has shifted a lot of its processing to expose fewer and fewer of its vulnerable ingredients to the vagaries of last-minute preparation in each eating locale. McDonald’s is taking the chance it can go in the other direction, for the sake of the perception of “fresh.” One of its franchisees told Business Insider: “Chipotle will be a walk in the park if we have an incident.”

Jeffrey Kittay is the founder and publisher of The Counter. He previously was the founder and editor-in-chief of the legendary Lingua Franca magazine, a winner of the National Magazine Award for General Excellence.