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Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2006 04:55 pm

Unkindest Cut

Industrial processors have trimmed the ranks of grocery store butchers - and changed how we define "fresh" meat

Unkindest Cut

Two passions started me on an exploration: A couple of years ago I received my great-grandmother’s diaries, which date from 1928 to 1971. I read them and learned about . . . well, you’ll see.

And then I purchased a box of frozen tilapia fillets for my family, who had suddenly gone from eating six fillets in a meal to eating almost 12. The answer, in my mind, was to buy a big box with at least two meals’ worth of fish in it. It was easy to come by, and I prided myself on purchasing healthy food, which I would prepare in, of course, a healthful manner.

At home, I opened the box and noticed that one of the two ingredients listed on the individual fish packages was carbon monoxide.

Yup, carbon monoxide, the silent killer.

I was so incensed on reading that label that I had no choice but to investigate further. I discovered that carbon monoxide is used as a color fixative in beef and fish. Similar to symptoms that occur in people suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning, flesh treated with carbon monoxide is made pink, fooling the customer into thinking that the flesh is fresh.

Meat companies have done hundreds of studies and pretty much know that folks are turned off by brown meat, even if the brown is no indication of lack of freshness or, as in tuna, if brown is the natural color of the flesh. Brown meat only indicates that oxygen has reacted with the meat, just as an apple turns brown if the fleshy part is exposed for even just a couple of minutes.

Carbon monoxide is not a preservative; it does nothing to protect the meat (or you) from microbes such as Escherichia coli or Salmonella. In fact, the false sense of safety you get from buying “pink” meat (which, in your mind, must be fresh) may be to your detriment: Meat treated with carbon monoxide and contaminated with E. coli looks just the same as clean, fresh meat. There’s no way to visually determine whether color-fixed meat is safe to eat.

The big meat processors say that all meat is safe to eat by the “use by” date printed on the label. Of course, there’s no way to tell whether that’s the original label, but we won’t go there this time.

Naturally, I had more questions. I recognized the multifaceted quality of this issue almost immediately. And it’s best to start at the beginning.

You see, there aren’t many butchers left. Grocery stores — especially the big chains — sell lots of meat; finding a local butcher or farmer who’s able to provide the volume the big chains need is difficult. Instead, supermarkets buy from the likes of Tyson and Cargill, the big guys. One plant can slaughter nearly 16,000 animals a day. They have made meat processing an assembly-line enterprise.

To extend shelf life — which is likely not a good thing when it comes to meat — and sell the product to savvy consumers looking for attractive products, meat is precut and slapped into gas-flushed trays, precut — sitting on a blood-, water-, and who-knows-what-else-soaked pad, wrapped tight in vacuum-sealed plastic, and shipped off in a refrigerated truck to, for instance, the Wal-Mart Supercenter.

Let’s go back to the “precut” part. “Precut” means the meat was cut at the plant. Your friendly neighborhood grocer no longer cuts meat. Stores today aren’t even built with the rails required to hang sides of beef for cut-to-order steaks.

In fact, “meat cutter” and “butcher” are specific union titles, and they don’t exist behind the meat counter at Wal-Mart or Meijer. “Clerks” do, though, and they’re happy to rewrap your prepackaged/unpackaged and displayed meat in brown paper to help you think you’re at a wholesome all-American grocery.

Perhaps now is the time when I should define “butcher” and “meat cutter.” A “butcher” actually slaughters the animal. A “meat cutter” does just that: separates the muscles and cuts the meat off the carcass. Both of these positions require some amount of apprenticeship and experience.

Historically, folks bought their meat from the local butcher or meat locker, which had a butcher and meat cutters, or they bought it from the grocer — who also employed meat cutters — who bought it from the butcher or meat locker and also employed meat cutters. Sometimes a grocer might even buy a live animal and slaughter it himself. Regardless, the middleman, if there was one, was a local business whose suppliers were local as well.

Today, though, given that grocery stores are built without meat-hanging rails and receive only precut meat in gas-flushed trays, very little meat cutting occurs, and certainly live animals are no longer delivered to a grocery store for slaughter.

Thus the demise of butchers and meat cutters — unless you happen to know Magro’s Processing in Auburn, where I received the education of a lifetime on a recent morning: I witnessed the slaughter of three steers.

Magro’s is a family-owned business, and it intends to stay that way. Members of the Magro family have created and built this business so that their children have a future.

This is where my great-grandmother’s diaries come in. She had a second-grade education and reared four children. She wrote every day in her diary. Her farm chores included wringing chickens’ necks in preparation for that evening’s dinner, slaughtering animals she raised to later can and pickle the meat, rendering her own lard, canning vegetables and fruit, and putting it all up for storage. She canned 25 quarts of strawberries like I type. (For a long time I have wondered about all that she did in a day and why I can’t get my laundry done.)

Anyway, I’ve always considered myself a country girl, but I have never seen an animal slaughtered, never even considered it as something missing from my life until I read her diaries — but then, when I discovered that I was feeding my family something that, if it occurred in our home, would kill us, finding out where our food comes from and how it gets to the store became an obsession.

Now, witnessing the slaughter of an animal may seem more like enjoying the Texas Chainsaw Massacre and, to some, nearly as sensible. I assure you, though, that this was an honorable process. Focus and meticulousness transformed the butcher and meat cutters into serious — and talented — artists. The animals themselves were treated humanely both before and during the slaughter, and the meat that came off the animal was processed with the utmost care.

From what I saw, if the animals actually experienced pain, it was short-lived.

I won’t bore you with the details, but at the end of the process two sides of raw meat had come from each animal. Each side was weighed, sprayed with a citric acid solution that halts the growth of bacteria, and put into a cooler, where it would spend 11 to 14 days curing, or finishing. During this time, moisture evaporates from the meat, causing the meat to lose weight. The weight of the finished carcass may be 7 to 10 pounds less than when it went into the cooler.

After the meat properly ages, it is cut into steaks and roasts or ground into burger, and then — this is important — packaged in a vacuum-sealed bag. The vacuum seal guarantees the quality, safety, and flavor of that meat; the meat is as fresh when it is thawed out as it was the moment it was cut and put in the package. The package is immediately put in a deep freezer, where the temperature is maintained at 5 to 10 degrees below zero with a wind chill of minus-40. Trust me — you don’t go in there wearing anything wet.

Once frozen, the meat is put in the front freezers — where it is kept frozen — until purchase. You cannot buy partially thawed meat sitting in liquid yuck at Magro’s Processing.

As part of his operation, Tom Magro inspects all of his machinery first thing in the morning, then at midday, and again at the end of the day. He also inspects his freezer and cooler, documenting temperatures for each.

Magro maintains eight or nine separate reports on a daily basis in compliance with food-industry regulations that ensure human safety, humane animal care, and meat quality and safety. He notes that the meat industry is the second most stringently regulated industry in the country, after the nuclear-power industry. All of this for a small family-owned business where 40 to 50 head of cattle and 25 hogs are slaughtered each month.

In contrast, the big meat companies that operate 24/7 allow their meat to age one day; they do that because they can’t break it down the same day that it’s slaughtered. Basically, you buy from them what is termed “hot” beef, which refers to how long it has been allowed to age, not its temperature.

Processing meat in this way accomplishes a couple of things, both in favor of the meat company. The meat, if you recall, weighs more before aging because of the moisture that’s still in it. If it’s cut before the carcass is even cold — or aged properly — water and blood are still bound up in those muscle fibers, and therefore it weighs more.

Guess what . . . you buy meat by weight. This is where the “small-print factor” comes in. Have you noticed that meat — chicken, pork, and beef — now has “up to 10 percent solution added”? Do you know what’s in that 10 percent solution? I don’t — but I reckon, from what I’ve learned so far, that it’s a mix of flavor enhancers and preservatives. Of course, that 10 percent adds weight to the meat.

So when you buy a 10-pound roast at Wal-Mart, you are not buying 10 pounds of meat. The benefits to meat companies are that more of you are buying nine pounds of meat and a pound of “solution” soaking that lovely maxipad, and they didn’t bind up their profits in that pesky 11- to 14-day finishing period.

That pound of moisture might not seem like a big difference to you as an individual, not big enough for you to get ticked off about. But if you multiply your pound of moisture times the number of roasts that are purchased, at the price of meat today, you will see how quickly the unearned profits add up.

Because of all these shortcuts, the grades of meat have changed over time as well. The quality of meat — which is indicated by the USDA-recognized “prime,” “choice,” and “select” grades — is determined by the amount and quality of fat marbling in it. Fat requires that the animals be “fed out” on corn and grain for the maximum amount of time so that they gain weight. Therefore the “leaner is better” mentality these days has also benefited the meat industry: Because animals are not allowed to fatten — thereby providing “leaner” meat — more animals can be slaughtered in less time. Good butchers, though, appreciate and criticize marbling in the same way vintners appreciate and criticize wines.

So now you know. Butchers — and good safe meat — may soon become the stuff of fairy tales. And don’t forget: The weight of your precut, prepackaged roast isn’t the weight of the meat. The weight includes all that moisture.

And a little carbon monoxide, too.

Amy Spies Karhliker is a freelance writer, editor of the Almanac of Illinois Politics 2006, and former associate editor of books at Illinois Issues/Center Publications

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