03 December 2005

Meaty issues

I was puttering around today and found a reference to SmartMoney.com's 10 things your butcher won't tell you on The Accidental Hedonist. Granted, it's a discussion of the state of US meat, but I wouldn't be surprised if things are strongly mirrored here in Canada.

Not-so-super supermarkets
Most of today's "butchers" are little more than meat salesmen, paid in accordance to profit guides at a supermarket's head office. A quarter-century ago, butchers were "skilled meat cutters used their muscle to break down whole carcasses and their know-how to ensure no scrap was wasted." Today's meat jockeys basically cut up "primals" into individual portions, shape, tie and grind meat for sale.

Because many supermarket meat departments no longer have butchers, they can't handle special orders. Thanks to "case-ready" meats, products are pre-packaged ready for sale for maximized profits. This means the 16-year old in the green apron behind the meat cold case doesn't know how to alter cuts. What you see is what you get. Don't think of asking for a boneless rack of lamb, or an extra-large sirloin.

From the factory to your fridge
An increasing number of meat salesmen are spending their time "preparing" it. If you go to the store's fresh meat department, you'll find a growing section devoted to pre-marinated meats (teryiaki chicken, honey-mustard pork etc). Of course, the added convenience of having someone else inject or soak the meat in what may be questionable solutions (various preservatives, salts, sugars...things ending in-ose, -ide etc) comes at a cost--the article cited a 31 per cent price hike for doctored pork versus straight pork in one store, but it all depends upon th store and what sort of competition it has. I live in the land of M&M Meats so finding a piece of unadulterated meat ... 'nuff said.

It's a well known thing in kitchen: fat adds flavour. When you think of what used to be considered a standard level of marbling ("veins" of fat running through a steak), today's cuts are almost positively monochromatic. When people became obsessed with getting the leanest cuts possible, they complained that meats became tasteless. The answer, or so thinks meat manufacturers (I'm not sure I can consider them farmers (or whatever)), was to brine the meats--injecting beef, pork, chicken and turkey with saltwater ("which often reaches 15% or more of the purchasing weight"). Meat processors argue customers want preseasoned foods because they"taste better" and save cooking time--oh yeah, the salty additions also extend meat's shelf life. I'm waiting for the first class-action in against injectors by people who's health has deteriorated as a result of of this.

You are what the animal eats
With an eye towards profits (I don't begrudge them this, but I do have a problem with the way it's done) most livestock are kept and slaughtered on factory farms, where animals eat corn- and soybean-based feed. But that's not all they eat: 10 to 30 per cent of what they munch is often radically different from what the animal would consume naturally--feathers, poultry manure and bedding are all acceptable in cattle feed, according to the US Food and Drug Administration. (I haven't checked Canadian standards). Up here, I found out that it can include a seafood meal--when was the last time you saw a cow fish for her calf's supper? Poultry may also be fed meat and bone meal ground down to an inexpensive, protein-rich powder that encourages fast growth...can anyone say "

The author warns of being fooled by "all natural" nor "free range" labelling as standards in no way reflect how the animal was raised, nor what it was fed. "Natural" means that the producers haven't added colours nor additives to the cuts after processing. The USDA lets chickens be labelled as "free range" if the birds have been given access to the outdoors, but they don't have to be outdoors.

You are what finds its way into your meat
Okay...let me say this. I think people are hypersensitive about bacteria and germs. I believe in keeping things clean, but some people are going way too far--I recently saw a TV show in which the host recommended giving washed dishes a two-minute soak in a bleach solution to make sure they were clean. Yes, I expect to get messages from people accusing me of being insensitive to the immuno-suppressed, the very old, the very young and those in the midst of breeding. All I think is that normal, relatively healthy, non-pregnant people don't necessarily need to spend their lives in hazard suits.

Buy things (meat, veg, whatever) in clean stores, in places where you think sanitation is taken seriously. The article had some scary stats on "critical deficiencies" re: insect, rodent, bird or vermin activity that could have caused contamination.

According to the article, ground beef, especially what's 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--which may include spinal tissue (repeat question about prions). Another worry about ground beef is that during the grinding process and packaging, the meat is exposed to listeria, staphylococcus and salmonella-laidened air. Let's just say that USDA okays ground beef with 7.5% incidence of salmonella bacteria, versus just 1% for raw cuts. Either get your butcher to grind a raw cut or take it home and grind it yourself. Yes: if you cook meats to the point that these bugs are killed, chances are you'll be safer, but then you wind up with shoe leather.

I'll be honest, there were a couple of points about the Canadian Mad Cow and how non-US countries export meats to the USofA. It reads like protectionism and doesn't mention the Alberta cow that was diagnosed with Mad Cow may have originated from the US (then imported into Canada before rules and standards changed).

What to do?
Ask questions. If you are trying to be bought off with marketing, go somewhere else. Buy your meat from someone who knows what he/she is doing--find an owner-operated butcher shop (a la
Fred Elliott and Ashley Peacock) or go to your local farmer's market and make friends with the butcher. Chances are you'll find someone who can give you great advice. If you are buying ground beef, make sure they have a dedicated grinder for beef, one that doesn't handle pork or chicken.

Read up on what the the standards are for various labelling. In the US, "organic" meat means the animal's feed did not contain animal by-products, nor receive growth hormones. These animals must also have real, sustained access to the outdoors. I don't know what standards are elsewhere.

Last night's shopping trip
Last night I was pricing pork roasts as The Father of the Fussy Eater (who, himself is *not* a fussy eater) will be visiting this week and I'm thinking of making supper for us one night. *EVERY* cut available was labelled as "seasoned"--even the unpackaged stuff. I asked the meat jockey to get me an unseasoned piece and he brought in his manager to talk to me because he didn't know what I was talking about. The manager came out with all the marketing idoms of flavour and low-fat. I told her I didn't want something that was brined in a solution that I had no control over. She told me that "no one else has ever brought it up" and implied since there was no market for unadulterated meat, she wasn't able to help me.



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