A recent New York Times article on ground beef has led a lot of friends, colleagues, and clients to ask my thoughts on the issue.
It's great to see so many of us asking how our food system works but it is complicated territory. Most of you tell me you were disgusted to learn what goes into commodity ground beef, upset that some companies may have lax food safety standards, and looking for help. I've made it my job to develop a knowledge base on beef so let me attempt to sort through the myriad issues raised in the Times.
First, allow me to highlight an issue that is rarely raised. Outside of the sheer yuck factor, one very compelling reason to avoid eating commodity ground beef is that it has very little flavor. Per my earlier post, the reason is that large packers do not use flavor as a primary goal in the first place. Instead, their focus is cost control, to produce the lowest cost burgers that you're still willing to eat.
Why spend your hard-earned cash on a lame tasting burger?
But anyway, back to the issue at hand. The Times article raises three related but separate issues: the risk of food poisoning from contaminated meat, our inability to trace our meat back to the source, and the inclusion of "trimmings" that have been treated with ammonia.
The Bad News: With regard to food poisoning there is no fail-safe solution for any food including ground meat. Meat, vegetables, fruits... at some point all food comes from the earth and typically passes through many hands - including yours - before you eat it. No matter how carefully food is handled, there is a chance that a pathogen may get into your system.
The Good News: There is great tasting ground beef out there made from source-specific, quality ingredients and I can help you find it.
Now let's debunk a few myths.
Buy From Your Local Butcher. I am a huge fan of locally grown and processed meat. However, it's important to know that many meat cutters are buying their beef from the same sources as discussed in the Times. Also, being local doesn't automatically add up to pathogen-free.
Buy From A Farmer. Based on hundreds of taste tests I can say with great confidence that you are far more likely to get flavorful ground beef from any farm-specific purveyor whether online or offline. That's because farmers industrious enough to not only raise but also slaughter, process, and market their beef are likely to be preoccupied by flavor and texture, not just yield.
Unfortunately, knowing the farmer's name does not ensure pathogen-free meat or a fabulous eating experience. Bacteria can be introduced indirectly such as a deer walking through the field, by renting a neighbor's bull, from a truck or slaughterhouse, or through cross-contamination in your own home.
As for flavor, you might be surprised to find out just how different beef can taste from farm to farm. As with winemakers, some farmers and butchers are more talented than others, too. Trust me, you will like beef from some a lot more than others.
Grind Your Own. The idea here is to purchase whole muscle cuts such as a Chuck Roast or Brisket and grind it at home or ask a meat cutter to grind it for you. The benefit is you will at least know that there are no ammonia-treated fillers or other oddities in your burger.
However, unless you (or your butcher) are extremely scrupulous, you still run the risk of food poisoning unless you thoroughly cook the beef. This is because any bacteria on the surface of the meat, on your hands, in your kitchen, or on the grinder itself can get mixed into the beef during the grinding process.
Buy Grass Fed Beef. There are many reasons to choose grass-fed beef (I call it grass-only) including flavor and texture. Eat Wild also suggests some potential health and other benefits, too. There is some evidence that grass-fed cattle have a lower incidence of certain bacteria but it's important to note that the research is inconclusive.
Either way, cross-contamination can occur at virtually any point between farm and fork so grass-fed does not guarantee pathogen-free.
So What Is The Solution?
Outside of thoroughly cooking your ground beef? Start asking questions! We have a tendency to seek shortcuts and easy answers and sadly many companies are only too happy to comply. No Trans Fats! claims do not make potato chips healthy. All Natural! is virtually meaningless in any food category. But if we all start doing everything we can to know what is on our plates and how it got there - and walk away if the answer is not forthcoming - retailers and processors will eventually start being pickier about how they source their meat.
The benefits are numerous. While it will not eliminate pathogens, at minimum buying source-specific meat will increase the chance of having a great tasting burger made without mystery ingredients.
Look For Artisan Beef
I personally look for farmer, trucker, and butcher teams who employ artisan practices to create signature-style flavors and textures. We like to compare steaks and burgers from multiple farm teams and when my family finds one we like, we feel like we hit the jackpot and stock up. (This is a great way to save money, too.)
To find artisan quality beef I created a list of questions that I employ as a guide. Please feel free to download my cheat sheet here or, if you're feeling shy, I will screen a farm or butcher for you. I also have a list that I will publish soon and expand with time.
You Can't Find Artisan Quality, Now What?
Artisan beef is extremely hard to find but you can still increase your odds of finding great tasting beef for your family.
Look for brand name beef with a label that clearly states the cattle were raised without the use of added hormones or preventative antibiotics. You will likely find that it has more flavor and chances are higher that the ground beef is made from known sources and without ammonia-treated fillers.
If you can, order beef from several of these purveyors and compare them in a blind tasting at home. This is a great (and fun) way to find out which flavors you prefer. If you'd like to use my Artisan Beef Institute's tasting guide, which you can download here.
A step up is to find a butcher who can at least tell you the name of the farm and slaughterhouse and how he or she aged the beef. (Aging enhances flavor and texture.) Bonus points if they also test their ground beef. These are strong signs that care has gone into the making of those burgers.
Have I missed information? Do you have a favorite farm, butcher, or purveyor you'd like to call out? Please leave a comment or send me an email.
In the meantime, get out there and vote with your voice and your wallet. Ask questions, good retailers, restaurants, butchers, and farmers are ready and thrilled to respond!