by: Jane Black
1. “I’VE NEVER TOUCHED A BANDSAW
OR EVEN HANDLED A SIDE OF BEEF’
BEING A BUTCHER is a lot different than it was 25 years ago. Back then very
skilled meat cutters used their muscle to break down whole carcasses and their know-how to ensure no scrap was wasted. Today butchers are more often found behind the meat department counter at one of the large grocery chains, where their skil l set—and salary—has been reduced to accommodate the demands of big business. Their main job now is to cut up smaller pieces, known as primals, into individual portions, as well as to shape and tie roasts, and to grind meat for sale.
The upshot: Many butchers don’t know a whole lot about the meat they’re hawking—where it comes from or basic information about varying cuts, preparation or cooking time.
So where do you go if you want to know how to butterfly a leg of lamb? Look for an old-fashioned, owner-operated butcher shop, or visit an upscale market, such as Whole Foods. Theo Weening, the chain’s mid-Atlantic regional meat coordinator, encourages untrained staff to enter a two-year apprenticeship program, and each year meat department personnel are taken on educational outings to organic ranches.
2. “NO SPECIAL ORDERS:’
MANY MEAT departments don’t even have butchers anymore. Thanks to an innovation known as “case-ready” meat, staff are often little more than glorified stock handlers. Case-ready meat is prepackaged in plants and delivered to vendors ready for sale. The industry contends pre-preparation helps prevent contamination, enhance quality control and lower prices. And while that may be true, it also means less choice for consumers. Staff at chains that rely on case-ready product are not trained to alter cuts. What you see is what you get—you can’t ask for a boneless rack of lamb, for example, or an extra-large sirloin—and what’s in stock is probably going to be cut and sized based on what moves.
Among the monster chains, Wal-Mart has led the way—its supercenters have carried only case-ready meat since 2001. Fortunately, not all stores are on the case-ready bandwagon. High-end and specialty grocers are the exception. At New York—based Dean & Deluca, for example, breaking down a carcass is part of the job interview. “We have highly skilled people because that’s what our clients expect,” says Bill Lettier, vice president of retail operations. The bad news is, you can expect to pay a premium for the privilege of choice.
3. “THE REAL MONEY’S IN PREPARED FOODS — MARIN-ADES, KABOBS ....KA-CHING.”
“DON’T TAKE A butcher’s advice on how to cook meat,” Andy Rooney once quipped. “Jf he knew, he’d be a chef.” Perhaps. But more and more butchers now spend as much time preparing meat as cutting it—often at a premium. Wegmans, for example, offers marinated pork tenderloins and chicken cutlets. On Aug. 28, the chain’s Dulles, Va., store offered straight pork tenderloin for $5.29 a pound, while a honey-mustard-marinated version of the same went for $6.99 a pound. That’s too much even for people who hate to cook, like Bonnie Cohen, an international business consultant in Washington, D.C. “Even I, who am both lazy and nondiscriminating, find the prepared kabohs and other meats are a waste of money,” she says.
But markups aren’t always so obvious. At Whole Foods, for example, oven-ready chicken and beef kabobs in various marinades or a New York strip steak in a smoked chipotle sauce cost the same as nonmarinated cuts, but a preshaped, seasoned ground meat patty can run 20 to 75 percent more than the regular stuff. Prices vary widely by region and depending on the cost of beef, so compare very carefully.
4. “YOU THOUGHT FAT WAS BAD;
WAIT’LL YOU GET A LOAD OF THE SALT CONTENT’
AMERICANS’ OBSESSION with leaner meats has had an unwelcome conse-quence: Cut out the fat and you cut out the flavor. “Choice” beef, the grade most commonly found in supermarkets, has less marbling than it did 30 years ago —a result of breeding initiated in the I 970s to respond to health concerns over fatty meats. To counteract the lack of flavor most processors get around the problem by injecting beef, pork, chicken and turkey with saline, which often reaches 15 percent or more of the purchasing weight.
Meat processors argue customers want preseasoned foods, which taste better and save cooking time. (These additives also add shelf life.) Critics counter that so-called enhanced meats and poultry are mushy and salty. And most customers are outraged when they realize what they’re getting: “I paid for one-quarter of a pound of salt water when I bought a 2-pound pack of chicken breasts,” seethed New Yorker Amanda Bernard. But for many people, money is the least of it: Enhanced meat can he risky for those who need to watch their salt intake. The good news is, it’s relatively easy to spot enhanced products, which are required to carry an ingred-ients-and-nutrition label.
5. “YOU ARE WHAT THE ANIMAL EATS’
AMERICANS ARE consuming more meat than ever. In 2004 we ate over 221 pounds of meat and poultry per person, up from 199 pounds in 1990. In order for the industry to turn a profit on the low prices Americans have come to expect, most livestock are kept and slaughtered on factory farms, where animals eat corn- and soybean-based feed—10 to 30 percent of which is often radically different from what the animal would consume naturally. For example, feathers, poultry manure and bedding are all acceptable in cattle feed, according to the Food and Drug Administration . Poultry may also be fed meat and bone meal ground down to an inexpensive protein-rich powder that encourages fast growth.
This practice can be dangerous to humans. According to Consumers Union, between August 1997 and March 2004, 52 companies recalled products for violating federal rules protecting feed from infectious “prions,” the proteins believed to cause mad-cow disease . Despite the recalls, the FDA has failed to institute stricter rules.
How can you avoid contaminated meat? For starters, buy organic, which prohibits feed containing animal byproducts. And for information on food safety, visit www.notinmyfood.org
6. “THIS BEEF’S ‘ ALL NATURAL’ — WHATEVER THAT MEANS:’
SURELY “all natural” meat is a good option? Nope. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the terms “natural” and “all natural” on a meat label in no way reflect how the animal was raised or what it was fed; “natural” means only that producers have introduced no colors or additives to the meat after processing.
Other labels are equally misleading. To qualify as “free range,” according to the USDA, chickens must be given access to the outdoors only in the most technical sense: The door to the pen must be open for specified periods each day. Whether the birds actually go outside, and for how long, is irrelevant. “If you want to pay twice as much for essentially the same product, go right ahead,” says Richard Lobb, spokesperson for the National Chicken Council, which represents the largest chicken producers and processors. “There really is no difference.”
Contrary to popular belief, the only label with any real meaning is “100 % Organic,” which requires that livestock eat 100 percent organic feed containing no animal byproducts or growth hormones. These animals must also be given actual, sustained access to the outdoors.
7. “IT’S NOT ALL THAT CLEAN BACK HERE?
IS YOUR MEAT department sanitary?
Taking a look at store cleanliness may be the only way to tell. Though inspection records are public information , SMARTMONEY had to file a Freedom of Infor-mation request to review state reports. And no wonder. According to the New York Department of Agriculture, 25.5 percent of the state’s supermarkets were cited in 2004 for a critical deficiency involving insect, rodent, bird or vermin activity that could have caused contamination , while 7.5 percent were cited for unsan-itary equipment services. Another 1 percent of stores were slapped on the wrist for employees failing to wash their hands.
Your best option: Buy meat in stores where you believe sanitation is taken very seriously. Then develop a relationship with the butcher or meat department personnel, and express any concerns.
8. “‘GROUND BEEF’ IS A EUPHEMISM?
JOHN MONTANA, a Boston executive, is a gourmet cook, but sometimes he just wants a burger on the grill. When the mood strikes, Montana doesn’t buy any old ground beef . Instead, he selects a raw cut and asks the butcher to grind it on the spot. “That way, I know what I’m getting,” he says. Excellent idea. Ground beef, especially that found in processed foods such as sausage and pizza toppings, is often extracted by a process called “advanced meat recovery,” where carcasses are fed to a machine that strips soft tissue from bone. Consumer advocates warn that AMR increases the risk that spinal tissue—which can carry mad-cow disease-------could be included among the processed meat. The American Meat Institute counters that the spinal cord is removed from all carcasses before being stripped. Meanwhile, the first case of mad-cow disease in domestic-raised beef was just discovered in Texas this June.2005.
But that’s not the only worry with ground beef. It’s also a bacteria magnet. During the grinding process and packaging, it’s exposed to air that is rife with harmful bugs including listeria, staphylococcus and salmonella. It’s so difficult to prevent infection that the USDA okays ground beef with 7.5 percent incidence of salmonella bacteria, versus just 1 percent for raw cuts. Most experts agree that’s a reasonable level as long as meat is cooked to an internal temperature of 160 degrees, the temperature at which most pathogens are destroyed. The problem is, that’s well beyond the popular medium rare.
Our best advice: Find a butcher with a dedicated grinder for beef—you don’t want any pork or chicken mixed in—and have your beef ground at the store. Then cook your burgers thoroughly.
9. “THESE PORK CHOPS COULD COME FROM ANY-WHERE’
AFTER CANADA confirmed cases of mad cow in 2003, consumers suddenly became interested in the origin of their meat. But it’s not often easy to tell. Meat from Argentina, Australia and Canada, among other places, is available in supermarkets, bearing a USDA stamp.
It’s not only Canada that’s of concern: In 2003 consumer-watchdog group Public Citizen warned that many overseas inspection systems certified by the USDA do not meet core requirements of U.S. law. Brazil and Mexico, for example, violated U.S. rules that meat be inspected by independent government officials, yet these countries have retained their eligibility to export. The USDA’s zero-tolerance policy for contaminants including feces and urine was also repeatedly violated by Australia, Canada and Mexico. USDA spokesperson Steven Cohen asserts the system has been modified to spotlight higher-risk products. “We have a very rigorous system of importation and certification,” he says. “We continually do audits to ensure that overseas food-safety systems remain vigorous.”
For now, the industry has defeated country-of-origin labeling. Your best bet: Look for domestic meat, locally raised if possible.
10. “TAINTED MEAT SLIPS THROUGH THE CRACKS ALL THE TIME’
IN 2001 BARBARA Kowalcyk’s young son, Kevin, died after eating a burger she prepared from meat infected with Escherichia coli. The strain that killed Kevin was identical to the E. coil found in meat recalled that summer by meat processor American Food Group. But Kowalcyk can’t be sure that’s where it came from since recalls are voluntary.
How do you know if the meat you’re buying is okay? Code numbers on every package of beef sold can be cross-referenced online with those of contaminated meat, posted at www.fsis.usda.gov But few consumers are going to hit the Internet every time they throw a steak on the grill. The reality is that the system is imperfect, and tainted meat does slip through the cracks. So far this year, there have been 24 recalls of meat due to dangerous levels of pathogens, including listeria, E. coil and spinal-column remains of a cow over 30 months old.
Your best bet is prevention . Freeze or refrigerate meat as soon as possible after buying it, and thaw in the refrigerator not on the counter. Cook meat thoroughly; juices should be brown, not pink or red. Place cooked meat on clean plates, and never reuse dishes that have been in contact with raw meat. Finally, serve immediately, or keep meat hot.
November 2005. (Pgs. 110-112)
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