The truth about Arby's roast beef

Even if you have your favorite fast food burger, you have to admit: you can go anywhere for a burger. If you want something different, head to Arby's and pick up a few of their roast beef sandwiches. They're delicious, but here's the thing: they're weird.

Arby's roast beef has a pretty distinctive taste and texture, and it's definitely a love or hate sort of thing. They built their entire business on roast beef while others were courting the lowly hamburger, and it's set them apart for decades. At the same time roast beef has helped them build an empire, it's spawned more than a few urban legends and myths, too.

And, over the years, their roast beef has been a bit of a problem for them. They're so well-known for it that according to AdWeek, it was at the heart of their slipping sales in the 21st century. Customers didn't know they had anything but roast beef, and that's a problem that led to a complete overhaul of Arby's image. But that roast beef is still there, and there's a lot that most people don't know about it.  

No, it's not "liquid meat"

Snopes says one of the most disgusting fast food urban legends about Arby's dates back to at least 1997, and it's the story that their roast beef isn't beef at all. The claim basically says their roast beef is actually imitation meat, made from gels, liquids, or pastes, formed into a vaguely meat-shaped lump then roasted, cooled, and turned into sandwich filler. Nothing about it sounds good, and it's a weirdly enduring story.

They did some digging, and went straight to the source: Arby's Quality Assurance. They confirmed there's absolutely no truth the story, and said that their roast beef is, in fact, completely beef. They're well aware of the rumors, and Arby's Jim Lowder wrote Snopes, "Thank you for doing your part to curb the urban legend about Arby's Roast Beef. I'm sure I'm not the first to express frustration about this type of story. The answer to your question is no. Our product does not arrive as a paste, gel, or liquid."

Of course they'll say that, the cynics think. But it was confirmed again and again independently, from Arby's employees that worked both behind the counter and in the kitchen.

Yes, it does come pre-packaged in a weird solution

Urban legends have to come from somewhere, right? Snopes says the origin of the tall tale might be related to the admittedly weird way the meat is shipped to the store. Each Arby's location receives their roast beef in airtight bags, and when they get it, it does look a little suspect. Snopes describes it as "kind of grayish and rather soft and squishy"… and that doesn't sound like most traditional types of meat, does it?

They add that it's probably not the meat you're seeing in the bag — there's also a "gelatinous broth" the hunk of meat is soaking in. Between the jelly-like broth, the weird color, and the squishiness of the bag's contents, it's easy to see how someone who never actually opened the bag might make the mental leap to the idea that the contents are less-than-solid. But Arby's — and their employees — assure customers that's just not the case.

It's cooked in the bag and sliced to order

In 2015, Arby's invested in redesigning their restaurants and their kitchens. Business Insider took the opportunity to go behind-the-scenes in one of the new locations before it opened, and got a peek at the processes that goes into serving up America's favorite fast food roast beef. They found that while some of their meats — like the brisket — get to the store ready to slice and serve, the roast beef is slow-roasted in its strange bag for around four hours. It's only after that it's put on the slicer and — surprisingly — is sliced to order only as customers are standing at the counter or sitting in the drive-thru.

Sounds unlikely, right? But it's confirmed by numerous employees and former employees on Reddit, like this cook and cashier who replied to an IAmA thread by saying, "All of the roast beef is cooked daily and sliced to order just moments before it gets on the sandwich and into your hands. I know this sounds like Arby's propaganda, but it's the absolute truth and one of the reasons why I was proud to work there compared to other fast-food."

Those sandwiches can be very good or very bad

With more and more people paying closer attention to the nutritional content of the foods they're eating, fast food chains have been under an increasing amount of scrutiny. Take a peek at Arby's nutritional information, and you'll find there's a way to eat pretty well — and there are plenty of ways to eat very, very badly.

Take the Classic Roast Beef, and you'll find it's not terrible for you. It's only 360 calories and 14 grams of fat, which is pretty good for a fast food sandwich. There are also 970 mg of sodium, which isn't great, but it's not the worst you can do when you're in need of a quick lunch, either.

But don't be fooled into thinking all their roast beef options are healthy. Opt for something a little meatier like the Half Pound Beef 'n Cheddar, and you're looking at 740 calories, 39 grams of fat, and a whopping 2530 mg of sodium. For some perspective, the American Heart Association strongly cautions that a daily sodium intake should be — at worst — no more than 2300 mg, and ideally shouldn't be more than 1500 mg. Just that one sandwich can take you over the limit.

They're trying to shed their roast beef-only image

Arby's may have built their business on roast beef, but in recent years, they've been trying to stress to customers — current and potential — that it's not all they're about.

In 2018, they launched a new ad campaign with the slogan, "Arby's. We have the meats… for sandwiches". According to The Wall Street Journal, the entire campaign was designed to let people know that there's much more to Arby's than just roast beef, and they're not shy about saying that. The campaign's "head of sandwiches" character moans about people who "still think Arby's is just roast beef," and that "The last time you went to Arby's you were with your grandparents who ate exclusively roast beef, every meal, somehow."

That's some serious shade to throw to a staple product line, but marketing chief Jim Taylor says they're not turning their back on their roast beef entirely. Roast beef is staying, but they're also looking to appeal to a younger crowd that typically gravitates toward sandwiches of all kinds, instead of just their grandparents' roast beef.

It didn't inspire the name of the chain

Here's another story most people have heard: Arby's got their name from the initials of their signature product, roast beef. Roast beef, R and B, say it quickly and you'll get to Arby's. Get it? It's a great story, but it's absolutely not true.

Arby's has tweeted more than once about the source of their name, stressing that while Arby's does actually come from the initials "R" and "B," it's not a reference to roast beef. It's actually referring to the chain's founders, Leroy and Forrest Raffel: the Raffel Brothers.

Strangely, even though Arby's is trying to clear up the misconception today, Today notes that during the 1980s, Arby's actually included the source of their name in an advertising campaign. They said then that it was an acronym for "America's Roast Beef — Yes!", which gave some serious creedence to the idea they named themselves after their flagship product. The 80s were a different time… and apparently were full of lies.

Roast beef was chosen to attract a higher-end clientele

Leroy and Forrest Raffel opened Arby's on July 23, 1964, says Business Wire. They did it at a time when everyone else was doing burgers, and their original menu of fresh-sliced roast beef was considered something completely out of the box. (Fun fact: those curly fries weren't added until the 1980s.)

Burger giants McDonald's and Burger King were still fairly new when the Raffel brothers decided to get into the fast food game. They had seen just how popular the fast food burger joint was, so why deviate? They wanted to offer something that would set them apart from the competition, but they also wanted to be the high-class fast food place.

"On the day we opened, the McDonald's hamburger was 15 cents and our sandwich was 69 cents," Leroy Raffel told NBC. "So, you had to be a little more affluent to buy our sandwich."

Decades later, their more expensive menu was cited as one of the major factors in their flailing business. In 2011, the joint corporation of Wendy's and Arby's was looking at pretty miserable sales, which industry analyst chalked up to a combination of a menu that's more expensive than other chains and inconsistent performance (via QSR).

They're dragging their feet on going antibiotic-free

There's a lot to be concerned about in the world today, and when it comes to food, one of the major concerns is the use of antibiotics in meat production. The basic idea is that when antibiotics are used to promote growth instead of just fight illness in animals, humans consume the meat and develop a tolerance for them, meaning antibiotics will be less effective when they're needed.

The world has turned an especially critical eye toward restaurants, and in 2017 a group of public interest organizations (including the Center for Food Safety and the Consumers Union) put together a report card grading restaurants on their commitment to only sourcing meat not produced with the help of antibiotics. Of the 25  chains surveyed, 14 got a passing grade. Arby's, on the other hand, got a dismal F.

According to MarketWatch, Arby's said that was largely because they refused to participate in the survey. But Consumer Reports says the F — which was also given to Buffalo Wild Wings, Cracker Barrel, Dairy Queen, Applebee's, Chili's, Domino's, IHOP, LIttle Caesars, Sonic, and Olive Garden — was awarded to chains that had no antibiotics policies in place. Food for thought.

They're working on creating sustainable sources

While Arby's might be iffy about the antibiotics in their roast beef, they are actively participating in efforts to increase the sustainability of beef production in the US. Their Corporate Social Responsibility program is called PurposeFULL, and part of that program is their focus on the food industry, FlavorFULL. In addition to sourcing cage-free eggs, they're also a founding member of the US Roundtable for Sustainable Beef. The USRSB is a coalition of everyone from start to finish in the beef industry, including producers, processors, beef farm suppliers, academia, and retailers (like Arby's). The goal? Keeping your sandwiches full of roast beef while not negatively impacting the planet and the environment.

Talking about sustainability is great, but it's one of those buzzwords that's tough for many people to actually define. When it comes to what Arby's is trying to do, it's impact everything from managing the carbon emissions and footprint of beef farms to improving the genetics of the herds, herd health, and nutrition (via BEEF).

It was blamed for a massive salmonella outbreak

In 2006, the South Georgia Medical Center reported an unnaturally high number of salmonella cases: eight separate cases between August 28 and September 5 alone. Eight doesn't sound like much, but The Legal Examiner says it was enough to spark an investigation that ultimately uncovered a total of 72 cases of illness. The source? Arby's, their roast beef sandwiches, and a new meat slicer.

The investigation (via WALB News 10) found that the problem wasn't bad roast beef, but a defect in the meat slicer. Bacteria was discovered under a portion of the blade's cover, a section of the machine that was supposed to be sealed with silicone. It wasn't, and in spite of the fact that the machine had been completely broken down, cleaned, and thoroughly sanitized, the bacteria remained and continued to be spread.

According to The Law Offices of Eric H. Weinberg, cases only stopped being reported on November 16. More than a quarter of the people who got sick required hospitalization, and there was one death potentially linked to the outbreak.