Saturday, October 17, 2009

Ground Beef - How To Find Top Quality, Great Tasting Burgers

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.

Further Questions?

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!




25 comments:

Drew Kime said...

Here's what I don't understand. If they can't identify the source of the contamination -- a situation the grinders and suppliers have created intentionally -- why is the response that we don't know who to shut down? The response should be, "If we don't know where it came from, shut them all down."

If I'm a supplier, and I'm confident in my process, I should want the grinder to test everything coming in the door so I don't suffer because someone else is providing bad meat.

Carrie Oliver said...

Drew, thank you for visiting! It sounds to me as if you have some experience managing recalls. That is a really good question, why didn't they shut all the ground beef raw materials suppliers down?

I wonder if we can find someone from FSIS or the processing side to respond to that. Perhaps someone from a different industry will weigh in, too, with further perspective.

In the meantime, this reminds me that we're out of ground beef. There's an Ontario ranch (or three) I've been meaning to visit... Good opportunity for a little taste test!

Drew Kime said...

Not recalls, just software testing. And there, when you have multiple inputs and something going wrong, not only do you check your process, you assume any one of the inputs could be bad.

And if you're thorough, once you've found which one is providing bad data, you determine why it was giving bad data, and see if any of the other inputs are using the same process but didn't happen to fail while you were watching.

The idea that you would say, "I'm getting bad data, but I can't tell where it's coming from, so it's not a problem," is laughable on its face.

But food? Ah, screw it, most people won't get that sick anyway.

Carrie Oliver said...

Drew, Thank you for sharing your experience and perspective from the software industry!

I can't help but be reminded of that engineering adage. "Good, fast, cheap. Pick two."

Right now, with meat (not just beef) the focus is on fast/cheap at the expense of good.

It may not happen overnight but I honestly believe that if enough of us ask questions about what's in the beef and where it came from -- and are willing to spend a little more time to find people who can answer these questions and walk away from those who cannot or will not -- we will inspire a shift to good/cheap.

Who knows, maybe with time we'll find a way to have it all three ways.

John's Custom Meats said...

In regards to why suppliers do not want the grinder to test everything....

If you are in the meat biz, this one is simple but apparently it is not quite as simple for the rest of the world.

Let me explain; say I am a slaughter facility. I am in control of my processes. I am assured that the meat left my facility free of contaminants. I did everything in my power and control to assure that my processes are under control and I am producing safe and sanitary meats.

I ship the product my customer.

In this case, the grinder.
The meats arrive at the grinder. I do NOT have control over their processes. I do not control their sanitation practices. I do not control their receiving practices. I do not control their refrigeration practices. I do not control their employee training. I do not control their lab testing or the employee's taking the samples. Each of these steps can and does contaminate beef. But, each of these steps I as the slaughterhouse cannot control at another facility As the slaughterhouse, I do not want another facility or grinder in this case testing my product under their conditions with their employees in their facility with their labs and practices. It is a liability issue. Because they very well can and do contaminate the meat product, but ultimately the "blame" if you will, comes back on me the slaughterhouse.
In addition, most likely I am not the only suppler this grinder has. My products have been mixed with several other facilities. All of which I cannot control.

Make sense? By allowing the buyer or grinder, in this scenario to retest a product that I have already maintained control of and am assured free of contaminates I have shifted my businesses liability to another company which I can not a do not control.

John's Custom Meats said...

In reference to: ..."if we con't know where it came from, shut them all down."

Oh my! As a USDA facility, we are under a heavy burden and heavy regulations. We maintain HACCP's or basically records of everything we do. I would be pretty pissed if I had to be held liable and shut down because another facility farther down the supply chain screwed up. I would cost me $1000's and in a larger company, it would cost hundreds of thousands. Money that cannot and will not be recovered.

If this were the case, I would cease all operations for small farm direct meat marketers across the region. You wouldn't be purchasing meats from your area farmer. The liability risk would be too high for me the USDA slaughter/processor. Again, I cannot maintain control of another person's actions or another businesses practices.

If the shift comes to this, I just won't process for anyone other than myself.

Clear enough.

Carrie Oliver said...

John's Custom Meats, Thank you very much for providing such a thorough response to Drew's question!

The last thing we need to do is legislate or regulate USDA facilities like yours, who are able to, and do, support smaller meat producers, out of business.

What can consumers do to make a difference, especially those who don't have access to the meat you raise and/or process in Kentucky?

I'm a fan of people voting with their pocketbooks to buy from farms, butchers, retailers, etailers who can tell them what's on the plate. In my experience it offers a better eating experience, a sense of community, and typically better value. Plus, it's a bit fun.

Drew Kime said...

John's Custom Meats, I appreciate your concern, but I need to take exception to one thing you said. You mentioned shifting business liability. I'm not talking about liability, but rather food safety. And if we can't get that without paying more for meat, then I think we need to pay more for meat.

I have no doubt your product is better than what comes out of most industrial operations, and I wouldn't want to see you put out of business. But the New York Times article was clearly talking about huge operations bringing in mostly scrap.

I think regulations should recognize the fact that different size operations, with different products -- eg: primarily whole cuts vs. primarily ground -- can and should have different practices. I'm sure you know the regulations better than I do, but from what I've read, they don't make any distinction for size, or for different processes that may be appropriate to a specific circumstance.

Chou said...

Carrie, thanks for reminding us that all food consumption carries a risk with it, and then also reminding us that there are steps that can be taken to minimize risk. It seems to me that mandatory, statistically-based sampling plans for the presence of E. coli after slaughter is the way to go--so the company that did their part doesn't go down for the carelessness of others in the chain.

However, John's makes a good point--what is to keep another facility from contaminating your product? Perhaps third-party testing is the answer? Bravo to them for taking the time to follow through with their HACCP plans. If only everyone else did so.

Caleb said...

Hopefully I'm not butting in, but to give a simple answer to some of Drew's questions, the main concern in beef is E. Coli 0157:H7. Unfortunately, E. Coli is a naturally occurring bacteria living in many natural things and most likely can not be eradicated completely. The easy answer to maintain health for yourself is use a meat thermometer for your ground beef and cook it to an internal temp of over 160 degrees and you'll be safe. Also, here's a link to some facts from the beef industry http://www.beeffrompasturetoplate.org/safety.aspx

Yes it is supplied by the beef checkoff. Beef producers really do care about your safety and they prove it by their continual investment in safety research.

Drew Kime said...

I hope Carrie doesn't mind the language, but I have got to wave the bullshit flag on that one, Caleb.

I can see from your profile that you've got a family connection to the industry, so this is a personal thing for you. And maybe your family does care about their customers ahead of their profits.

But the story of the last few decades is the industrialization of food production. As the people making decisions get farther and farther from the actual work, food safety moves from an unacceptable outcome that they take personally -- probably true of your family -- to a simple cost of doing business. If the increased profits are more than the potential cost of a recall, that's an acceptable risk.

John's Custom Meats said...

Drew, I was countering your recommendation. Liability and food safety go hand in hand to me. I hold myself personally responsible to keep my processes under control in order to assure myself that my customers are consuming safe and wholesome meats.

I cannot, however, allow my liability to shift and give that control over food safety to another facility. I have no control over their processes and I should not be held accountable for what they do with my product once it reaches their doors. That was my point. Your recommendation to correct the problem is not practical and would have repercussions that you may not have fully thought out.

I also beg to differ over the scrap. Perhaps it's the wordage? Scrap brings to mind the junk that one would toss in the trash. This is not the case necessarily in beef. Scrap is a term we use to describe trimmings. These trimmings are what typically makes the ground beef that you would purchase from a farmer at the farmers market or through direct sales, etc. It is not necessarily an accurate statement to consider the scrap as garbage. "Scrap" is merely the trimmings from the other steaks and roasts that are pulled from the beef carcass. Depending on how the carcass is cut will determine what is actually in the trimmings. Now grant it, trimmings from a small processor and trimmings from a mega processor are quite different but I wouldn't necessarily call it scrap.

We also raise beef and offer our meats for sale to consumers, wholesale, etc...Food safety is on our minds from pasture to plate.


On a side note: Carrie, I love the post. It is wonderful. I appreciate you keeping food safety in the discussion while providing alternatives to consumers on where and what type of beef they can purchase. Kuddos for you!

Drew Kime said...

I've found I have some of the most intense discussions with people that I mostly agree with. This is a perfect example.

I think what's happening is that your family's operation is so different from the huge ones that we're barely talking about the same industry. And whenever there is a story about "beef industry practices", it's usually the big operations they're talking about.

I may have gone overboard in my reaction to the liability point. I've just seen plenty evidence that many corporate officers actually think that way; they think these are all financial questions, not something to take personally like you do.

Carrie Oliver said...

Chou, Thank you for visiting and leaving a comment! There are ways to minimize risk and at the same time get better tasting meat - even tailored to your particular taste-buds and/or values.

Let's hope more people start asking what is in the beef and where it came from.

I receive mostly blank stares these days in both restaurants and at meat counters but I go back to the same places once or twice a year and get better answers each time!

Carrie Oliver said...

Drew, Caleb, and John's Custom meats, Thank you for taking this dialog seriously and helping tease out some of the nuances and challenges.

My biggest beef (pun intended) is that I consider beef to be a food whereas many in the industry and government view it as protein (or set of nutrients). Quality (and flavor) are left on the sidelines.

Fortunately, a lot of farmers, butchers, and even meat-cutters are beginning to focus on creating great tasting, high quality, and differentiated meat, including burgers.

John's Custom Meats said...

I would be the last person to stand up for mega processors, but I have to tell you that these similar discussions happening across the web, media, and journalism all affect our business too. It also affects the small family farmers direct marketing their meats that depend on us to do so, even if they don’t realize it just yet. We must be cautious of what type of regulations we are advocating for. To further squeeze the smaller processors would result in drastically fewer numbers of an already dying breed. Mega processors and small family ones are one in the same in the eyes of food safety and USDA FSIS. There is little distinction. So yes, it is personal.

I would love to see the public receive a better understanding of how the meat industry actually works.

I may be a small fry in the meat biz world right now, but this wasn’t always the case. We have spent a lifetime in it. We are only currently small. We grew up in the meat business. Our family run USDA shop in Michigan was a larger facility. We supplied grocery stores, etc... carcasses (before the days butchers were gone from the stores) and before the days of HACCP implementation. Daily deliveries of fresh meats across the region, were the norm. Literally trucks running nearly every day. Much larger than we are now. We have also been on boning lines in mega processors, worked in mid-size Government contracts, and operated a small part time custom shop in between the hours on the farm and on off farm jobs. We've even been behind the meat counter in a retail supermarket (admittedly not very long, ack!) before we chose to build our current full capacity (but small by processor standards) USDA slaughter/fabricating facility.

I tell you this to give you a better understanding of the extent of our multi-faceted meat processing knowledge & experience.

I am not afraid to consume meats from mega processors. I choose not to for two basic reasons...

1. I don't feel the farmer gets paid enough for his/her livestock

2. Taste

It’s as simple as that really. Which leads me to why we started this facility in the first place. It wasn't because I felt the meat industry was broken or dangerous. It was because I knew my neighbor farmers and my very own farm deserved more dollars for what we had produced. But, most importantly I personally wanted to bring the true taste of beef back to my community.

The meat industry as a whole cares deeply about food safety, if for no other reason but because it is bad for business and their bottom line. Our industry spends millions food safety. We, as a whole, do not take the issue lightly.

I cannot run with the mega processors on their advancements and latest technologies to control pathogens in their facilities (and many times, I even depend on it) or the millions spent on research and development to create the latest meat cut or product. But what I can do is something that they can’t and they know this.

I can give the taste of beef back to my community, a taste they as a mega processor cannot duplicate.


So basically that’s where I stand in the recent uproar over the meat industry.

I encourage folks to branch out and experience beef from different sources.

Thank goodness for choices. All of which, I believe, are safe with proper handling.

In closing, I would encourage folks to be careful what they wish for or push for in terms of further regulations, testing mandates, etc… The end result may not be exactly all you dreamed it would be.

John's Custom Meats said...

I would be the last person to stand up for mega processors, but I have to tell you that these similar discussions happening across the web, media, and journalism all affect our business too. It also affects the small family farmers direct marketing their meats that depend on us to do so, even if they don’t realize it just yet. We must be cautious of what type of regulations we are advocating for. To further squeeze the smaller processors would result in drastically fewer numbers of an already dying breed. Mega processors and small family ones are one in the same in the eyes of food safety and USDA FSIS. There is little distinction. So yes, it is personal.

I would love to see the public receive a better understanding of how the meat industry actually works.

I may be a small fry in the meat biz world right now, but this wasn’t always the case. We have spent a lifetime in it. We are only currently small. We grew up in the meat business. Our family run USDA shop in Michigan was a larger facility. We supplied grocery stores, etc... carcasses (before the days butchers were gone from the stores) and before the days of HACCP implementation. Daily deliveries of fresh meats across the region, were the norm. Literally trucks running nearly every day. Much larger than we are now. We have also been on boning lines in mega processors, worked in mid-size Government contracts, and operated a small part time custom shop in between the hours on the farm and on off farm jobs. We've even been behind the meat counter in a retail supermarket (admittedly not very long, ack!) before we chose to build our current full capacity (but small by processor standards) USDA slaughter/fabricating facility.

I tell you this to give you a better understanding of the extent of our multi-faceted meat processing knowledge & experience.

I am not afraid to consume meats from mega processors. I choose not to for two basic reasons...

1. I don't feel the farmer gets paid enough for his/her livestock

2.Taste

It’s as simple as that really. Which leads me to why we started this facility in the first place. It wasn't because I felt the meat industry was broken or dangerous. It was because I knew my neighbor farmers and my very own farm deserved more dollars for what we had produced. But, most importantly I personally wanted to bring the true taste of beef back to my community.

The meat industry as a whole cares deeply about food safety, if for no other reason but because it is bad for business and their bottom line. Our industry spends millions food safety. We, as a whole, do not take the issue lightly.

I cannot run with the mega processors on their advancements and latest technologies to control pathogens in their facilities (and many times, I even depend on it) or the millions spent on research and development to create the latest meat cut or product. But what I can do is something that they can’t and they know this.

I can give the taste of beef back to my community, a taste they as a mega processor cannot duplicate.


So basically that’s where I stand in the recent uproar over the meat industry.

I encourage folks to branch out and experience beef from different sources.

Thank goodness for choices. All of which, I believe, are safe with proper handling.

In closing, I would encourage folks to be careful what they wish for or push for in terms of further regulations, testing mandates, etc… The end result may not be exactly all you dreamed it would be.

GreenRanchingMom said...

Great Post Carrie!

As far as the discussion goes - Wow! You all are so educated and passionate! All of the producers out there like me need more passion and support of home raised beef!

Anonymous said...

Carrie,

Tracy Smaciarz spent about 2 hours on the phone discussing Flavor, Texture, Cattle and Butchering today. It was our first contact. Apparently we have similar passions!

There is so much to it. And, so much personal Preference. It is much like Wine and Beer. It is not all Port or Porter. But it does seem the commodity Burger has lost its flavor.

We have actually had Ladies buy Meat from us and state they quit eating years ago. Just didn't like the flavor. The Purchase is for thier Husband and Kids. They come back and say while it was cooking, it smelled so good they had to eat it.

I'll be dropping samples to Tracy for some of his distributors. Is it possile to get samples to you through him?

Also, USDA is stepping up frequency of testing in my experience this year. I like the step. I also like that the Butchers I use have never had a smple come back positive. The Smaller guys do pay attention to detail!

Pat Mallon
Pat~n~Tams Beef

Carrie Oliver said...

Green Ranching Mom - I'm flattered that you paid a visit and I'd love to learn more about your beef!

Pat - That's great that you and Tracy Smaciarz had a chance to talk, he's a rarity, a true Artisan Butcher, and an all around great guy. I expect to be in Seattle Mid-January or early February and would love to do a formal tasting of your beef! I'll track you down in email. Thanks for asking.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Carrie.. I will leave some Samples with Trayc specifically for you just in case our schedules can't match,

Pat

Anthony said...

Interesting article. We have been going now about a year and are selling our beef to the general public. Upon our local Bakers request we now supply him with our ground beef. He is now getting direct feedback from his customers saying how good his meat pies are now. As I responded to him. Where else would you get a pie where the meat had been pasture raised and dry aged for 3 weeks and the ground beef is a mixture of ALL cuts from off cuts from fillet, and porterhouse to round and Chuck. I swear in most pies you just the lowest of the lowest.

Cheryl said...

I work with La Cense Beef, they are an all natural Grass Fed Beef ranch located in Montana. They have some very tasty burgers as well as many other cuts of meat. There are tremendous benefits to eating all natural grass fed beef. I encourage you to check them out for yourselves.

Carrie Oliver said...

Anthony, I would have to agree that ground beef/patties or meals made from them are the bomb. The aging process adds so much flavor to ground beef that one often needs nothing but salt alone. And trust me, I am typically someone who uses ground beef as a platform for sauce!

Carrie Oliver said...

Cheryl, thanks for visiting. I've included La Cense steaks on one occasion in one of my Artisan Steak Tastings but never tried the burgers. Plus, I believe you all have made a few changes at least in the aging techniques and time you use for the steaks and ground beef. It would be a pleasure to try them again, please feel free to reach out to me any time at Carrie AT oliverranch {dot] com.