ORATB v.3: A Butcher Reponds

Last week I had linked to an article entitled “10 things your butcher won’t tell you“. Regular reader and professional butcher Jace read the article and wrote me, saying that (and I’m paraphrasing here) she was full of it. I asked him to provide his perspective, and he agreed.

So I’m handing the keys of this blog over to him for one post.

Oh, and feel free to stop by Jace’s blog. The man knows his meat.


Many misconceptions seem to be rampant amongst American food aficionados regarding their meat supply. Some seem misguided, some misdirected. Some are just flat-out wrong. When Ms Black wrote her article, it seems she brought up some issues regarding the meat industry that the consumer should be aware of, but took it to far and accused your local butcher of being inept.

She writes: “‘I’ve [a butcher] never touched a bandsaw or even handled a side of beef.’ 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.ˮ

She’s only telling half of the story, and inflating the issue that she is actually right about. It is only partially true that your neighborhood butcher hasn’t handled a side of beef or a bandsaw. Many meat cutters haven’t ever handled a side of beef because it is largely unnecessary. It doesn’t take much skill at all to break down a side of beef, hence Tyson/IBP, Excell, et. al’s ability to pay unskilled, immigrant labor to do this for them. If you showed an experienced retail meat cutter where the primals come from (not that they wouldn’t have a general idea anyway), I’m sure they could do it with minimal instruction. At that point, it’s just a giant jigsaw puzzle. Lastly, only a few subprimals can just be sliced and packaged. And, those that can, such as the shortloin and rib, still have to be cut on a bandsaw, even in a retail environment.

Nearly every chain grocery store still employs actual meat cutters with knowledge and skill. It’s the chains such as Wal-Mart and SuperTarget (who used to, and who still employ people with the skill but who rarely use it) who do not wish to appease their customers by taking on a slightly higher payroll.

When she says of your butcher, “No special orders,” Ms. Black is just being absurd.
I’ve never worked in nor shopped in a single grocery store that refused to place or fill special orders for customers. At a store with small volume, I have insisted that a customer buy a certain percentage of my minimum order. It might be impossible to move an entire case of tongue or oxtail or side of lamb unless the person requesting it buy at least half. Many times customers aren’t happy about it, but can a consumer really expect a manager to order in several hundred dollars worth of product that won’t sell?

Furthermore, I’ve always encouraged special ordering, especially around the holidays. It prevents rushes and empty cases. Most any store will gladly fulfill the request of any customer, assuming that it is legal, financially feasible for both client and store (and sometimes for an exceptionally good client, they overlook the profitability), and won’t destroy the productivity.

The precut, pre-packaged beef sold at stores such as Wal-Mart are the products the consumer should actually scorn. Theses places don’t even hire butchers anymore, and cannot fulfill your requests because they’re limited in their ordering and don’t have the facilities to do so. This is not the type of service that consumers should put up with. If you shop in a grocery store that doesn’t offer a full service meat case, you should find another store. If you’re so remote as to only have places like Wal-Mart to shop, you likely live rurally enough for there to be plenty of meat processors who will sell sides and quarters of beef and hog to order—your specific order.

That Ms. Black thinks that it would be a surprise that convenience products are the most profitable for the meat counter is a surprise in and of itself. “Value-Addedˮ product is the bread and butter of the entire food industry, from three-star restaurants to the local Sizzler salad bar. I sell assembled sirloin kabobs at four dollars a pound and am not only making my usual 100% markup on the sirloin, but I’m also making 400% markup on the veggies. The money savvy consumer should already realize this. When I shop for chicken, I don’t buy anything other than whole fryers because I know how marked up the parts are. I assemble my own kabobs at home and pay retail for the veggies instead of the marked up price from the case. I make my own marinades at home. People pay more for convince foods all throughout the store, so why should the meat case be any different?

Aside from the previously mentioned convenience foods, and poultry in general, her assertion regarding added salinity is completely untrue . Chickens, turkeys and ducks are all brined before hand, often in the case of IQF (individually quick frozen) chicken breasts, much higher than necessary. This is mainly done for flavor. Can you imagine how dry your thanksgiving turkey would be if there wasn’t at least a 6% brine added to the turkey? The average or below average cook’s nightly chicken dinner? They would taste like rubber. Saline is like hedging your bet that the consumer will ruin your product. Brining has become more and more en vogue, but often it’s completely redundant. As far as beef and pork, the USDA does NOT allow this. It does not occur. Beef and pork are nearly always sold natural and minimally processed. In the case of the meat case, it is never done.

So farwe’ve made it halfway though Ms. Black’s article and not one of her points have been true of the industry as a whole, or even as a majority. But the second half, she beings to make some decent points, although poorly researched and not coming to a complete thought on them.

“You are what the animal eats.”

“This beef’s ‘all natural’ — whatever that means.”

Ruminants are no longer fed bone meal made from ruminants. It’s that simple. The recent crackdown on BSE has made that illegal, and the Cattlemen’s Association has been discouraging it for even longer than that. Our beef supply isn’t the safest, especially without mandatory testing for BSE, but our beef supply is not at grave risk. Sure, free range, grass fed cattle is best, especially for the discriminating taste, but is it affordable? Consumers are outraged when I show them the wholesale price of organic, free range cattle. It’s as if they can’t seem to realize that it is much, much more expensive to produce. It requires vast stretches of land, three years of dormancy of the land (what rancher can afford to let acres lay unused for years?) and many more ranch hands to drive the cattle than are used within feed lots.

What she neglects to point out is this: fifty years ago, the crème de la crème of beef was grainfed. Feeding grain to cattle produces fatter, tastier beef, but people didn’t do it often because it was expensive and wasteful. Most people today haven’t ever had grass fed beef, and many who have don’t care for the taste. It has a strong, distinct, grassy taste. People should be concerned with the health of the animal and use of hormones, antibiotics and pesticides, but they should also be willing to pay the costs. It’s simple supply and demand at this point.

Another point that she addresses that the consumer needs to know for their own health and safety is the issue of ground beef and I absolutely stand by this. Most places get pre-ground tubes of beef and then run it through a grinder a second time. These pre-ground beef products, along with pre-made beef patties are the main source of E. Coli. I almost always by whole-muscle meats and grind them (through a freshly sanitized grinder) for my own personal consumption, especially because I like my burgers rare. Whole muscles are nearly impossible to be a carrier for E.Coli. I gladly tell my clientèle this too, if they ask me what the best is, and I have no problem doing for them what I do for myself. I find that most people just don’t care, and most people who regularly consume ground beef cook it thoroughly, anyway.

But as she makes some good points, she starts to lose it again:

“It’s not all that clean back here.”

Every place I’ve ever worked at or shopped at is probably cleaner than your home kitchen. Really. Do you scrub down every work surface every day, and use a sanitizer solution on every submersible part? Are your floors and walls washable? And I don’t mean just a damp sponging? The only problem that I have ever run into was starting at a chain grocery store where in between species of animals they would simply wipe the boards with a rag soaked in sanitizer. This is a somewhat serious cross contamination issue, and I called the health department. The chance of actual transmission of food-borne illness is slim to none if you’re cooking your food to the recommended temperature, but that’s the worst I can come up with. Most stores have extensive ServeSafe training, and have major measures in place to prevent food-borne illness transmission. The last thing a store wants to be is culpable for the illness of a customer due to their product. In all my training this has been constantly drilled into the heads of the meat cutters

Our best option as consumers is to just look around. Watch the workers for a few minutes. Look at the floors. Look for dust. If there’s dust, then things aren’t being cleaned on a regular basis. Most markets are perfectly clean.

“These pork chops could come from anywhere.”

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.
I’d love to see her source on this. The borders are now completely closed for beef, fowl and pork imports. There are multiple injunctions in place, the majority still there despite stricter laws in places like Canada regarding the testing of meat. “Exotic meatsˮ such as goat and lamb are allowed in, but are required to display the country of origin, and are inspected by the USDA. Even if not prominently displayed at the point of sale, your butcher can tell you the source in a heartbeat because all of the incoming meat is clearly marked.

At last she attempts to address the issue that all consumers should be most aware of when buying meat–their own health and the risk of food-borne illness. However, it is much simpler to control than she makes it out to be. There are two main threats to your health when buying meat in America: E.Coli through pre-ground meats and patties, and Salmonella, which affects 1 in 2 chickens sold in the US. Both of these are easily prevented with the right handling and cooking. In fact, all meat in the US is sold with a safe handling label. Follow this and you’re fine.

“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,ˮare the words she leaves us with. The best part of her article, and information that any butcher will gladly share with you.

Here are my tips to you, dear reader. Choose a reliable butcher that is bright, clean, friendly and is willing to get to know you by name. Always be friendly, never argumentative, and express your interest and knowledge. Ask questions. Ask for recommendations. Become a regular. You will receive the best service if the meat man knows that he has to retain you as a customer for the good of the business.

Oh, and a nice tip at Christmastime will always ensure you get the very choicest cuts.

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