• Friday, April 29, 2016

    Beef Quality Grading

    What does ‘Quality’ mean to you?

    Quality can mean lots of things. In regards to meat, some people may equate it with freshness or wholesomeness. Others may think the word ‘Quality’ indicates nutritional quality, in that a certain food is good for you. Still others may think ‘Quality’ means it tastes good, meaning that high quality meat it is tender, juicy, and full of flavor. All of these are true.

    However, in the beef industry when we talk about Quality grading, we are talking about terms like Prime and Choice, and those terms help us know how tender, juicy, and flavorful a beef cut may be based on the age of the animal and the amount of marbling (the little flecks of fat found within the muscles in a cut of beef). These grades are used to help farmers and meat packers market their animals based on an indicator of eating satisfaction. Keep in mind that grading is different from Inspection, which determines whether or not the meat is safe and wholesome, and grading is voluntary whereas inspection is required.

    At the turn of the 20th century, someone in the USDA decided that farmers and meat producers needed a consistent way to determine if one beef carcass was superior to another, so they began to work on ways to differentiate carcasses based on their eating satisfaction. There is a very detailed history of meat grading on the Texas A&M meat science website.

    How are cattle graded?

    Today, cattle are graded in beef processing plants by USDA employees whose services are paid for by the beef packing companies. In some plants, grades are applied with the help of cameras and computers.

    I am not a USDA grader, but I can estimate
    grades. Here, I am grading some carcasses
    for a small processor. You can see how the
    carcass is cut for the grader to evaluate it.
    First, the grader determines if the cattle are young. They look at specific bones along their backbone to make this call. A very large percentage of the cattle that are graded by USDA graders are young. Because the beef from older cattle can be significantly tougher, they are graded differently. It can get pretty complicated, but if it REALLY interests you, check it out on the Texas A&M meat science webpage.

    Next, the grader looks at the marbling. That’s the important part. Each carcass will be cut so the USDA grader can look at the ribeye muscle at the 12th rib. They compare the marbling in each ribeye to the marbling in a set of standardized cards to determine the Quality grade. The graders give the carcasses marbling scores that match up with the USDA quality grade.

    What do the different grades mean?

    USDA Prime.
    Prime, the highest grade classification, has the greatest amount of marbling (an Abundant, Moderately Abundant or Slightly Abundant marbling score). Only about 4% of carcasses will grade Prime. These cuts are sold in expensive restaurants and fancy hotels because they are the most tender and juicy.

    USDA Choice
    Carcasses that qualify for Choice are considered high quality, and having a high percentage of beef that grade Choice has always been a goal of cattle producers. Today, about 2/3 of the beef carcasses graded in the US qualify for Choice. All of the quality grades are divided into high, average and low, but within Choice, those divisions are priced and marketed separately.

    Upper 2/3 Choice
    Carcasses from the top two divisions in the Choice grade will often qualify for one of many USDA Certified programs, such as Certified Angus Beef, Sterling Silver Beef, or Chairman’s Reserve. These marketing programs incorporate quality grade with other carcass standards to set themselves apart. Having more marbling than low Choice beef (Modest or Moderate marbling scores), these cuts are very tender and juicy and are often found in nice restaurants and fancy grocery stores.

    Low Choice
    When beef is labeled as USDA Choice, it is mostly likely low Choice beef. Still high quality cuts, low Choice is found in many stores and restaurants. They have less marbling (a Small marbling score) and are less expensive, but can still be tender and juicy if prepared correctly.

    USDA Select
    Cuts that qualify for the Select grade have less marbling than Choice (a Slight marbling score), but these cuts are lean and full of protein. The Select grade is very uniform and these cuts can be quite tender, juicy and flavorful, especially if braised or prepared with marinades and cooked to lower degrees of doneness (medium rare). They are the least expensive of the grades we have discussed.

    There are other grade classifications for carcasses that don’t have enough marbling to even grade Select (USDA Standard) or carcasses from older animals (USDA Commercial and Utility). You probably won’t see those advertised in a store or a restaurant. There is also a whole different type of grading (Yield grading) that evaluates the percentage of edible beef each carcass will produce based on how much muscle and fat is in it, but those grades are largely used within the industry for pricing, and not really marketed to consumers.  

    Quality grades are not perfect indicators of beef tenderness. You may still find tough steaks that were graded Prime, and you can probably find tender ones that were graded Select. Meat scientists are always working on ways to improve our ability to predict tenderness. (That was actually my Master’s project.)

    Hopefully, the next time you go to the store or to a fancy steak restaurant, you’ll have a better understanding of what these USDA Quality Grades mean. Please let me know if you have any questions.

    Monday, December 7, 2015

    It’s all in the package: Ground Beef

    I'm not sure why I have this silly face.
    I love to take #meatcounterselfies!
    A few weeks ago, I made a quick stop in a local grocery store to pick up some stuff for office lunches. Of course, I had to swing by the meat counter for a #meatcounterselfie.

    While I was there, I found four different examples of packaging ground beef in the retail case. So, I snapped a few pictures and made a quick facebook post. My post was so popular, I decided to recreate here in the blog.

    Foam trays with over wrap.
    One of the most popular types of packaging
    Foam trays with over wrap. It's kinda like cling wrap. In the world of meat science, we call this aerobic packaging. It's aerobic because it allows oxygen to react with the protein and creates the bright red color consumers like to see.

    This packaging type is pretty inexpensive and easy, but the oxygen makes the meat spoil in a couple of days. You also shouldn't freeze meat packaged this way because it's more likely to freezer burn.

    Ground beef chubs
    We call these packages ground beef chubs. These are 10-pound packages, but you can get chubs in 5-pound, 2-pound, and even 1-pound. They are not always in clear bags like this. Sometimes the chubs are white and only tie at one end.

    This beef was packaged in the packing plant. That's good because it decreases the number of people that handled it and lowers the chances that it will spoil. They are essentially a vacuum package, which is why you see that purplish-red color. The vacuum isn't perfect. Sometimes a little air will get in on the ends.

    Beef can stay safely in this package for several days, and you can stick it directly in the freezer. My friend, Dr. Casey Owens, commented that she likes to buy ground beef in these big chubs and divide it into 1-pound portions in zip-loc freezer bags. That’s a great way to save some money.

    Modified atmosphere package
    This is called a modified-atmosphere package. This ground beef was also packaged in the packing plant, so the number of times it’s been handled is decreased compared to foam tray packaging. It's kind of like a vacuum package because it's sealed, but it has a special blend of air in the package to help control the growth of bacteria and give the meat that pretty red color.

    I wouldn't use this package to freeze the meat; I would re-package it in a zip-loc freezer bag or a home-vacuum packager.

    Vacuum-sealed package

    Last is a vacuum sealed package. This beef was packaged in the packing plant and is a completely sealed package. See how it's a purplish-red color?

    This package will have the longest shelf-life, and meat will freeze in that package just fine. It's also nice and flat, so it will thaw easily, too.

    The meat counter at this store had several different options of ground beef, and, as a meat head, it was exciting to me to see all these different ways to package it represented in one store. But, please know that all these packaging types are safe. Regardless of how the beef is packaged or processed or any claims made on the label, all ground beef should be cooked to 160 F and checked with a meat thermometer.

    I have another neat post called 10 things you didn’t know about ground beef or you may enjoy any of my other posts about beef, food safety, or the labels you see on packages.

    What questions do you have about things you see in the meat counter?

    Monday, October 26, 2015

    The sky is not falling on hotdogs and bacon

    According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) processed meats have been classified as a Class 1 Carcinogen. News stories are quick to point out that asbestos and tobacco are also Class 1 carcinogens. You might like to know that other things in that list include sunlight, birth control, alcohol, and hormone therapy. Red meat was classified as a Class 2A, along with working as a hairdresser and grilled food. The IARC has looked at hundreds of items and only one has made the ‘not carcinogenic’ category. Furthermore, just because a substance is in the same classification as tobacco and asbestos, it doesn’t mean that its relationship to cancer is as strong as those substances. 

    I’m not telling you this because I want you to spend the rest of your life eating bland food in the dark; I just want you to know that the sky is not falling.

    I’m not ‘that kind of doctor,’ but I know that cancer is a very complicated disease. Everyone wants to find that one silver-bullet prevention, but it’s just not out there. Genetics, exercise, medicine, whether or not you’ve had a baby, and diet can all affect your cancer risk. 

    Processed meats are important

    The ingredients and processes used to make hotdogs and bacon and sausage are about more than creating tasty treats to eat at tailgates. Processed meats help us to use meat more efficiently, waste less food and feed more people. 

    Processed meats allow us to use the whole animal. There are lots of cuts on the animal that wouldn’t taste very good if we just tried to cook them like fresh meat. They may be too tough, too small, or too fatty. Meat processors grind them up and mix them all together to make sausages and hotdogs. 

    Processed meats allow us to store meat for longer times. Ingredients like salt, sugar, and nitrites help fend off bacteria that cause it to go bad. They also keep it from becoming rancid. Think about how long hotdogs and ham last in the fridge in comparison to fresh steaks and burgers.

    Processed meats are a good source of inexpensive protein. Foods like hotdogs and sausages are inexpensive, but they provide protein. People need that protein, especially kids. Protein helps you feel fuller, longer after a meal. It also helps build and repair muscles as kids grow. Research has shown that kids fed protein perform better in school. In some poor families, processed meats are the only way they can afford to feed their kids protein.

    Processed meats help prevent food-borne illness. Ingredients like salt and lactates help keep dangerous bacteria, like Listeria, from growing, and nitrites are added to prevent the growth of Clostridium botulinum, the bacteria that causes Botulism.

    There is lots of good information circulating today about the benefits of processed meats and the complicated issues around this new classification.

    I really like this interview from CBS News this morning, looking at this study in the real world.

    So, think about the benefits of processed meats. Enjoy them.

    Tuesday, October 20, 2015

    Grannie Annie’s Pozole

    I don’t often do recipe posts. Honestly, I don’t often cook. But my friend Sarah Shotts is working on an awesome new adventure, Project STIR. She wants to create videos of families cooking together and passing down recipes and kitchen secrets.

    Her project really hit home for me as I lost my Mother in August and my Dad’s Mom last October. What I wouldn’t give for a few more hours in the kitchen with either one of them.

    So many of the things that make a dish delicious can’t be found on the recipe card. I hope Sarah’s project helps to preserve dishes for other families and cultures.

    I decided to share my Grannie Annie’s Pozole.

    Like most grandmas, Grannie Annie was happiest with a
     baby in her lap. That's Vallie at about 3 months.
    I grew up in Texas, but my Dad’s family lived for several years in New Mexico. In those years, my Grandmother picked up several culinary traits from the Hispanic and Native American cultures in the Jemez Mountains. She made homemade tortillas and sopapillas and put green chilies in everything.

    Pozole is a prehispanic soup traditionally made with pork and hominy. According to Dad (and verified by Wikipedia), the word pozole actually translates to simply ‘hominy’ in the native Aztec language.

    Our family always ate Pozole on New Year’s Day, but I wanted to share it because it’s one of the most unique dishes we eat.

    Bonus! It’s super easy and can be made in the crock pot!

    I had to call my Dad for a recipe. Turns out there’s not one written down, so he recalled the recipe from memory.


    3 big cans hominy (drained)
    2 cans of Green Chili Enchilada sauce
    1 can for chopped green chili
    Jar of chopped pimentos
    Pork or chicken cut to bite size
    Salt and pepper

    You may need to add a little water to cover all of the ingredients in the crock pot.

    It takes 3 to 4 hours for the meat to cook and it is ready to eat.

    He said Grandma used to make it with dried hominy that she soaked overnight, but it was just as good with canned hominy.  Grandma was very particular about how her dishes looked in the bowl, so she would buy some yellow and some white and then add pimento to make it look pretty.

    We fixed the Pozole late morning and let it cook for most of the afternoon.

    We made ours with chicken, but pork works just as well. I wanted to take a picture of the cut-up chicken, but I was chasing kids while Dad was doing the work.

    Even the kids enjoyed it.

    I love a good crock-pot recipe.
    So easy and great for this time of year.

    We topped it with shredded cheese and ate it
    with flour tortillas. Dad warmed the tortillas in the
    skillet to take the ‘store-bought’ taste out of them.

    Thursday, September 10, 2015

    You will never be lonely again ~ a Meathead’s take on the Microbiome

    I was invited again this year to attend the Alltech Symposia to learn about new and emerging technologies in agriculture and food production. Alltech is a global food and Ag company that produces feed ingredients and supplements for all parts of agriculture including cattle, swine, fisheries, equine and crops. They view agriculture as a whole food system, and are very interested in tackling global health issues with solutions applied to food and crops.

    One of the most interesting sessions I attended covered the Microbiome, led by Dr. Rowan Power, an Alltech scientist.

    He said that we used to say, “You are what you eat.”

    But now, he says, “You really are what 100 trillion and one of you eat.”

    Each person plays host to about 100 trillion bacteria (that doesn’t even count fungi and viruses). These bacteria live on and in your body, including on your skin, in your nose, mouth and eyes, in your lungs, and, of course, in your digestive tract. Over 1,000 species of bacteria live in your intestine, mostly your lower intestine. Yummy.

    A few more facts about your microbiome:

    • Bacterial cells out number human cells 10 to 1
    • The microbiome comprises 1 to 3% of your body mass (that’s 2 to 6 lbs on a 200 lbs person)
    • The total microbiome may consist of 10,000 species
    • The bacteria in our gut allow us to digest foods
    • The number and variation of the bacteria will vary from person to person

    Microbes and weight loss

    Doesn’t everyone have that one friend who can just think about going on a diet and lose 5 pounds? Scientists like Dr. Power are finding that the way our bodies react to changes in what we eat is largely dependent on the bacteria in our gut. What we eat is not as important as what the bacteria in our gut do with the food we eat.

    In one study, scientists removed the gut bacteria from some lean mice and introduced it to mice that were completely germ free.  They did the same with bacteria from obese mice. The mice that were given bacteria from the lean mice became lean, and those given the obese mice bacteria became obese. So, the bacteria in your gut may have an impact on how lean or obese you become.

    Dr. Power also said that when scientists looked at the bacteria in lean people, there was more variation in the bacteria in their guts than in obese people. People with more variation in their diets had more variable bacteria to digest their food and were leaner. (Makes me second guess my oh-so-consistent breakfast routine.)

    Microbes and feelings

    You know how some foods make you feel so good? Most neurotransmitters (the chemicals that send signals within and from our brain) are derived from nutritional factors. So, the way our microbiome breaks down food can actually affect how good we feel. Get me some happy bacteria!

    How do we change our microbiome?

    The microbiome will change based on what you feed it. If you eat a diet of fat and sugars, your microbiome will adjust to digest fat and sugar. If you eat more leafy greens and vegetables, the bacteria will change to digest those. So, the more variety in your diet, the more variety in your microbiome.

    Medicines like antibiotics can also change your microbiome. Everyone has been a little sick to their stomach after taking antibiotics (or you’ve had a sick child that has developed a nasty diaper rash after being on antibiotics). Even the bacteria on your skin can be affected by antibiotics. This is why doctors suggest that you eat yogurt after you’ve had to take antibiotics. Yogurt is full of healthy bacteria and you need to re-populate your gut with healthy bacteria after you’ve had antibiotics.

    Scientists are figuring out new ways to alter the microbiome in humans and animals all the time. There are foods and supplements that can encourage the growth of good bacteria and discourage the growth of bad bacteria. Of course, we all know the benefits of eating yogurt and drinking acidophilus milk. Cattle farmers have been using feed additives called ionophores to optimize the microbiome in their stomachs and help cattle digest feed more efficiently for years.

    Dr. Power said that pretty soon, human health efforts will encompass care for the human as well as care for the microorganisms that live on and within the human. We may be able to treat chronic diseases in humans by treating and altering the bacteria that live within them.

    Personally, I am excited about this emerging science in microbiology. I think it will be neat to see the medicine and treatments for diseases like Krohns and diabetes that might emerge from our new understanding of the microbiome.

    Wednesday, August 26, 2015

    Tales from the Livestock Barn ~ Washington County Fair

    Although I live in neighboring Madison County, I was thrilled when I was asked to write something about the Livestock Barn for the Washington County Fair. Full disclosure: In exchange for this post, the Washington County Fair is supporting the promotion of local agriculture by making a donation to my Moms on the Farm program – but my words and enthusiasm for the fair are all mine.

    When you bring your family to the fair, it may be a little intimidating to enter the livestock barn. There are sure to be a few sights and sounds (and smells) that your family may not be used to. Since my 4H kid is only 7, we are new to the world of being a livestock show family. So, I reached out to some other, more seasoned livestock show moms from Northwest Arkansas and around the country to get their input on the things they think you should know about the Livestock Barn.

    My little 4Her with her
    first calf, Water Lilly.

    The kids showing the animals are in charge of cleaning up the poop, but it’s a full time job. The first year my daughter took her calf to the fair, she was especially excited about getting to clean it up! She was about 3 or 4 and that excitement hasn’t really faded… yet. Here are a few tips:
    • Don’t wear your favorite pair of white shoes.
    • Poop can be a little slippery, so be careful. 
    • Wash your hands or use hand-sanitizer after you leave.

    A sheep isn't truly clean until
    everyone in the family is soaked
    Family time.

    When I was growing up, we didn’t go on vacation to Disneyland or the beach. We went to livestock shows. The animals are the kids’ projects, but it’s really a FAMILY endeavor. Hundreds of hours are spent together (mom, dad, brothers and sisters), working for a common goal of presenting an animal at the fair.
    Success in the Livestock Barn is a family accomplishment. When our family won at the show, it wasn’t my ribbon or my trophy, it was OURS.

    Small kids – BIG animals 
    My daughter loves to show off her
    show calf and have her friends pet it,
     but not all animals are so gentle
    and tolerant of little people.

    Livestock can be a little scary! The kids showing animals have spent hours and hours working with them getting them ready for the show. They know each other quite well and the animals are used to being handled by their owners. But, even gentle animals can bite, and even when an animal is comfortable with some kids, he or she may not be ok with all kids. Always ask for the owner’s permission before petting any animal in the livestock barn.

    Good to know: There is a great petting zoo at the Washington County Fair where your kids can pet ‘til their heart’s content

    Jenny sent this picture of two of
    her boys with the their dairy cattle
    at the county fair in Illinois.
    Teachable moments.

    The kids who are showing animals want to show off their hard work to everyone at the fair, not just the judges. If the kids are around, be sure to ask them about their animal. Ask the animal’s name, what it eats, where it came from, how old it is… You will be amazed what you will learn from these kids.

    My friend and fellow 4H mom, Jenny Schweigert said it best, Last week's county fair was very successful, but my favorite moment wasn't the ribbons or trophies. It was when our middle son kneeled down with a little girl he didn't know and started explaining the difference between dairy cattle and beef cattle.

    Lots of smiles. Maybe a few tears.

    Vallie and her calf last year
    For the kids showing animals at the fair, it’s like the District Championship game for kids who play sports - It’s a Really Big Deal. They’ve been working all summer in the heat and the mud getting their animals ready, and some will go home with lots of ribbons and trophies, but some won’t. Sometimes the animals act up and sometimes the judge doesn’t see it the way we do. It’s hard and frustrating (for kids and parents) when it doesn’t go the way you wanted it to.
    But at the end of the fair, it’s not the prizes that matter. It’s the sense of accomplishment. It’s the family time. It’s the lifelong friendships. It’s the lessons learned. It’s teaching new people about how their food is produced. 
    When you visit the livestock barn, you are not just seeing the animals. You are seeing the next generation of agriculture. You are witnessing the development of the people that will feed the world for years to come.

    Let’s go to the fair!

    The fair is letting me give away some ride tickets to a lucky local reader! Share a comment on this post about your favorite memory of a county fair to be entered to win $50 worth of ride tickets

    (Info about entry prices can be found here). If you haven’t gone to a fair before, tell me what you hope to see or do at the Washington County Fair this year on your first visit. I’ll choose a winner at random from the folks who enter and be in touch to get your tickets to you.

    The Washington County Fair has posted a schedule online, and also provides information about being a part of the fair by entering their contests and competitions through their Exhibitor Handbook.

    Keep up to date on happenings at the fair by following them on social media at one (or all!) the links below:

    Be sure to search the #MyWCF15 hashtag on social media to see what other folks are doing at the fair.