• Wednesday, August 24, 2011

    What is the difference between ‘Organic’, ‘Natural’, and ‘Grass-fed’ meat?

    I know you have seen lots of claims about 'Natural' or 'Organic' or 'Grass-fed' on meat labels in the grocery store and in menus at restaurants. Along with that, there always seems to be something on TV or the radio or the internet about organic this or natural that and people making claims why this product or that one is better than all the rest. What most people don’t realize is what those claims really mean when they are printed on a meat label or in a restaurant.

    Since I've written this post, I've also done a series of posts on food labels.

    Organic. The United States Department of Agriculture (through the Ag. Marketing Service) manages the National Organic Program which certifies producers that produce and handle organic produce. Organically raised livestock must be in compliance with the National Organic Program rules beginning at the last 1/3 of gestation. They must be only fed organic feed and allowed to graze only organically-managed pastures. They are not to be given hormones or any other growth-promoting agents, and only allowed to be given vaccines when they are not sick (nothing else). There are requirements that they must be allowed access to outdoors. All of these regulations are certified by agencies accredited through USDA. In order to place the USDA organic seal on the label of a product, it must be made with 95% or greater organic ingredients. Meat labeled as “organic” is very expensive because it costs a lot to produce.
    Natural. Lots of people think that ‘Natural’ is the same as ‘Organic’. It is not. According to USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service, a product with the word ‘Natural’ on the label must be …

     A product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed. Minimal processing means that the product was processed in a manner that does not fundamentally alter the product. The label must include a statement explaining the meaning of the term natural (such as "no artificial ingredients; minimally processed").

    So, ‘Natural’ is pretty open-ended. It usually comes with another claim like ‘no antibiotics added’ or maybe ‘grass-fed’. Other than that, it’s pretty similar to all the other meat you see. If it doesn’t say ‘grass-fed’, it’s probably not. If it doesn’t say ‘no antibiotics’, they may have been given. Realize that antibiotics have regulations for food animals that ALL producers must follow, natural or not.

    The USDA has a nice webpage explaining requirements for several phrases we see on meat labels.

    Grass-fed. Most people understand that, in the United States, producers feed cattle grain for the last 3 or 4 months of their life. This is an efficient way to get the cattle to gain weight and fatten to a point where American consumers like to eat beef. Face it, most of us like juicy, tender beef, and that comes from fat beef. Some people don’t like their beef fattened this way. Several countries around the world don’t feed cattle like this. Some cattle spend their entire lives eating grass. Grass-fed beef is generally leaner and has a stronger flavor than grain-fed beef. Some people like it that way (not me).

    2016 Amendment. Some of the rules for labeling meat as grass-fed have changed lately, but the premise has stayed the same. Meat processors that want to label their product as 'Grass fed' must have each label approved independently, so technically, the label could mean something slightly different for each company. However, small and very small processors can still use the 'Grass fed' label with the following definition.  The animal must have only been allowed to eat grass or hay for its entire life (except milk when they are babies). They should also be allowed continuous access to pasture during the growing season.

    Grass-feeding takes a longer time to get cattle large enough to slaughter, and there is not as much meat on grass-fed beef. So, it costs more.

    I am not trying to say that meat labeled as ‘Natural’ or ‘Organic’ or ‘Grass-fed’ is any better or worse than any other meat you may find in a grocery store or a restaurant. I will tell you that it is also not any safer or more nutritious than other meat. I just tell people, eat what you like, and when it comes to food labels, know what you are paying for.

    Tuesday, August 16, 2011

    What is this cut of meat? Steaks

    I guess most high school and college curriculums don’t require beef or pork anatomy. I don’t really know why that is, but as a result, most of the general public doesn’t have any idea where their cuts come from or why they taste the way they do.
    Steaks we see at a steak house restaurant.
    Ribeye. This is undoubtedly my favorite cut of meat. Beef, pork, chicken, whatever! I would never turn down a ribeye. Very juicy and tender, the ribeye is the muscle attached to the ribs, close to the back bone. Technically, ribeye steaks are boneless, but lots of restaurants offer bone-in ribeyes. I like them boneless because they are cooked more evenly.
    Most ribeye steaks will have an oval-shaped muscle and a smaller, crescent-shaped muscle circling it. That smaller muscle is called the spinalis and is extra tasty. So, if you are splitting your ribeye steak, be sure to offer the half without it to your friend. And, what they don’t know, can improve your eating experience.
    New York Strip/ Kansas City Strip. I’ve only been to NYC once, but I’ve been to Kansas City several times, and I can tell you from my visits and from watching countless episodes of Law and Order that those two cities are not a whole lot alike. On the other hand, New York Strips and Kansas City Strips are exactly the same, technically a Top Loin steak.  It doesn’t matter which geographical locale associated with it.
    Strips are the same muscle as that found in the ribeye, but the steaks are cut from further down the animal’s backbone, further away from the head (from the Short loin, where the lumbar vertebrae are). Usually boneless, strips are also relatively tender, but they don’t have the tasty spinalis attached. Sometimes they are narrower and have more connective tissue (gristle) than ribeyes. Because they are usually just one muscle, they are a leaner than the ribeyes (well, it’s easier to avoid the fa… not-lean parts).

    Filet mignon or tenderloin. As the price tag indicates, this is THE MOST tender cut of meat on the animal. It lies under the backbone along the lumbar vertebrae. As a muscle in the live animal, it must not have had much to do because it is very tender. Sometimes it has some off-flavor problems. Filets are also rather small, so if you don’t have a large appetite, it could be a good choice.
    T-bone. This is a favorite of lots of men. It’s BIG and it has a bone. Basically, the T-bone is the Strip and the Filet still stuck together with a bone in the middle. It’s a good one for sharing, especially if you and whoever you are sharing with don’t like your steaks cooked to the same degree of doneness. Generally, steaks are less done closer to the bone.

    Sirloin. If I’m not in the mood (I don’t have enough money) for a ribeye, I usually order a sirloin. The story goes that an English king liked the steak so much that he knighted it, hence ‘sir’ loin. According to Wikipedia and Snopes.com, that’s not true. (It doesn’t mean you can’t pass the time telling the story to your kids while waiting on your meals at the steakhouse.)
    The sirloin steaks are the very last steaks cut from the loin. Made from two large muscles, full-size sirloin steaks are very large, but are usually cut into smaller steaks for restaurants. At some places, you can order a sirloin steak as small as 6 oz. That’s uncooked weight, so the cooked weight should be between 3 and 4 oz (close to the suggested serving size).
    Sirloin steaks are often marinated or flavored, which makes them tastier, but can it also add calories (like I care). Sirloin tips are from the same area, just cut up before they were cooked. Sirloin steaks are generally lean, but can be inconsistent in tenderness. When I cook them at home, I try to make sure I don’t overcook them.

    Flat-iron. I love it when people say that the Flat-iron is a ‘new cut of beef’. Like cattle just suddenly started growing a new muscle. Really what happened was that some researchers decided that they would test the tenderness of every muscle in the animal, just to see. And SURPRISE! SURPRISE! There was a muscle in the shoulder (Chuck) that was really tender (2nd most tender in the animal, only one that beat it was the Filet). The scientific name for the Flat-iron is the Infraspinatus, and it is found right next to the shoulder blade. It has a big hunk of connective tissue (gristle) that runs right through the middle…problem.  The folks at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) worked on a new way to cut it to remove the connective tissue and so that it was a nice portion size, renamed it the ‘Flat-iron’, and started teaching the rest of us in the industry how to cut and prepare it. And POOF! a new steak!
    The Flat-iron is always tender and juicy. Sometimes, if it isn’t cut correctly, some of the gristle gets left on it.

    That’s pretty much it for ‘grillin’ steaks’ or steaks you will commonly find at restaurants. Several of these steaks are among the 29-cuts of lean beef that qualify for the USDA definition on ‘lean’. Those include the strip, the tenderloin, the T-bone, and sirloin steaks. So, go out and enjoy a good steak tonight.