• Wednesday, November 22, 2017

    An abscess: Its not a Tumor!

    I try not to react to every negative photo or post I see online about the meat industry. Frankly, I just don’t have the time. However, when friends or a followers of my blog ask about certain post over and over again, I think it’s time to address it. That happened to me this week.

    This photo and claim from a ‘butcher’ has been circulating around social media. I added the words in yellow.

    I know how disgusting this picture looks, and using the word CANCER makes it extra scary. However, as a meat scientist, I can assure you that it is not cancer. It is an abscess, a localized infection that the animal’s body was fighting.

    Abscesses like this one would be very rare to find in a butcher shop. Our meat supply is one of the most inspected industries in the world. Not even hospitals and nursing homes are inspected like meat plants are. Employees of the USDA Food Safety Inspection Service inspect every single animal as it goes through the harvest process. In a big commercial plant, dozens of pairs of eyes will look at every carcass. When an abscess is spotted, it is removed immediately. If an animal has been sick, USDA inspectors will see the signs of illness in the animal’s lymph nodes and internal organs. Sick animals are condemned and not allowed to go into the food supply.

    The meat is further processed and cut up on the fabrication floor. When an abscess is found there, the whole line must be stopped and sanitized. The abscess and the tissue around it is removed and discarded. At that point, the knives, the table, and anything that was in contact with the abscess would have to be thoroughly cleaned and sanitized.

    So, there are several barriers that keep abscesses out of a retail butcher’s hands. I have worked in the meat department of a grocery store and have known several butchers throughout my career. I know they take their jobs very seriously and that they would treat an abscess just like it would be treated at the packing plant. If an abscess did make it to them, I’m sure they would cut out the abscess and the tissue around it and discard it. Then the equipment and area would be cleaned.

    I take issue with posts like these for several reasons.

    1.          They are scare-tactics meant to shock and gross-out people, causing a mistrust of our food system. Cancer is such a scary word. Most of our meat comes from young animals who would be very unlikely to have cancer. Furthermore, an animal with cancer would be very sick and would be condemned on the kill floor by the inspector.
    2.       Pictures like these aren’t about safety or public health; they are about generating clicks and shares and fame for the originator. They are to twitter what auto accidents are to drivers: a sight that makes you slow down and look – and in the case of Facebook and Twitter, perhaps even share, giving the originator of the content attention and followers.
    3.       If these butchers that shared this ‘information,’ were being truthful and were so concerned about these practices in their place of business, why didn’t they speak up? Why would you work somewhere for 30 years where you were disgusted by their policies? Why hasn’t he called his meat supplier and complained about these defects in the meat? 

    This Thanksgiving, I’m thankful for the safety of the US meat supply, the 8,000 inspectors who oversee production and the hard-working people in our meat plants who bring the safest, most affordable meat supply to our tables. I hope this information helps you feel the same way.

    As always, let me know if you have any questions.

    Tuesday, August 1, 2017

    Veal processing

    To continue my series on the American Milk-fed veal industry, I’m going to write about my experience in the veal processing plants. In this series, I’ve already written an overview of the veal industry and about how the calves are fed and raised.

    On our tour, hosted by the American Veal Association, we were invited to visit two veal processors in the Philadelphia area. We had breakfast with Wayne Marcho, who told us the story of Marcho Farms. He expanded his business from a few veal calves that he had in his boyhood into a company that employs over 200 people and contracts with veal farms in 5 states. He likes to say it’s a 4H project that ‘got out of hand.’

    A photo of Mr. Catelli's father.
    I love the history in the meat business.
    Tony Catelli invited us to an amazing veal dinner that I’m going to talk more about in my last post in the veal series. His dad started the family veal and lamb business over 70 years ago and passed it to his sons in 1981, becoming Catelli Brothers. Now it is the US division of the family owned Fontelli Food Group, the largest producer of veal in North America with plants in New Jersey and Quebec.

    As a meat scientist, I was excited to get to see a new type of processing plant, but what I saw didn’t surprise me in the least. Just like all the meat processing plants I’ve been in, these plants had the highest standards in animal welfare and were immaculately clean and sanitary. They are operated under USDA inspection with their required HACCP plans to ensure that they produce a safe and wholesome product.

    We observed harvest at the Marcho Farms plant, and, as with most large processing facilities in the US, Dr. Temple Grandin helped to design and approved the holding pens and live animal handling equipment. The animals are showered with water when they unload off the truck and rested in pens. They are calmly moved to harvest only by employees specially trained in live animal handling. The animals were stunned to render them unconscious and proceed through the process using humane and sanitary procedures just as is done in meat processing plants of all species.

    I didn’t have any doubt that the harvest process would be clean and humane because I know the meat industry, and I know the people in it are committed to doing the right thing. Now I can say that I’ve seen it with my own eyes.

    A USDA inspection stamp on
    a veal carcass at Marcho Farms
    Although we were not able to see the harvest side of the Catelli Brothers operation, Mr. Catelli shared that their live animal handling areas are monitored by a third-party animal welfare auditing company. They use video to view their entire process 100% of the time they are in operation.

    Marcho Farms uses a lactic acid wash on the carcasses at various stages in the slaughter process to help keep bacteria from attaching to the meat. USDA inspectors observe the live animals and the whole harvest process. They will also look over each carcass and their organs for signs of disease or contamination. The inspector will mark each carcass with an inspection stamp of edible ink.

    The carcasses are washed with 180°F water and individually bagged in plastic to eliminate cross-contamination. After chilling 48 hours in a cooler they are graded and cut up. 
    The calves weigh about 500 pounds and have carcasses that range from 250 to 300 pounds.
    You can see the size of the
    veal carcasses at Marcho Farms.
     This man is about 6-foot tall

    Veal grading

    Just like beef, veal has USDA grades assigned to the carcasses by a USDA grader. Veal carcasses may grade Prime, Choice, Good, Standard, or Utility. Grades are decided based on the conformation of the carcasses (ratio of muscle to bone and fat) and the color of the lean.  The grader evaluates each carcass and designates their grade with a stamp of purple, edible ink.

    Marcho Farms also participates in a USDA Process Verified Program called Butcher’s Block Reserve. It has qualifications for Quality grade in addition to ribeye size and lean color. The USDA grader evaluates each carcass and certifies the ones that meet the specifications for the program. It’s kinda like Certified Angus Beef for veal.

    At Marcho Farms, USDA graders stamp veal carcasses with Quality Grade or Butcher Block Reserve

    stamps based on lean color, ribeye size, and conformation (muscling).


    In the meat business, we use the term ‘fabrication’ to reference the trimming and cutting up of the carcasses, so it’s really the opposite of ‘fabrication’. But, that’s the tradition.

    Employees wear white frock and aprons,
    disposable sleeves and gloves when
    handling and cutting the veal.
    Just like in all meat processing facilities, the plant is washed top to bottom every day, and company employees and USDA check the plant for cleanliness before they get started. Anyone entering the plant is required to wear clean frocks, hairnets, and hard hats. We had to wash our hands every time we entered, even though we weren’t going to touch anything. Employees who work with the meat wear plastic gloves and sleeves that get changed several times each day.

    All of the cutting and packaging rooms are kept at refrigerated temperatures. Several times throughout the process, the veal cuts were sprayed with a blend of lactic and citric acid to control bacterial growth. The veal cuts move through the plant on cleaned, sanitized conveyor belts and in containers we call ‘lugs.’ The veal cuts are packaged ready to set out in the store. Catelli Brothers was the first company to provide case-ready veal and lamb. Once the cuts are packaged and labeled, they are boxed and stored in refrigeration until they are shipped out. Even the shipping dock is temperature controlled and the company places a temperature recorder inside each truck to ensure the meat stays cold.  
    Case-ready veal cuts at Catelli Brothers

    Mr. Catelli said that most of their veal takes less than 7 days from harvest to retail. That includes the carcasses being imported from Canada! Freshness is very important in the veal industry. Both Marcho Farms and Catelli Brothers said that they are able to trace their veal from farm to fork.

    Something I always enjoy hearing about is the plant employees. These two plants employ over 400 people. It’s not easy work. These folks have to work on their feet in cold temperatures wearing lots of protective equipment. But, they enjoy their jobs. Many employees of both of these companies have worked there for many years. Mr. Catelli introduced us to Phil, who has been cutting meat for 57 years.

    As on the harvest side, nothing I saw in fabrication and packaging surprised me. The process was clean and efficient. I have no doubt that they are producing a safe and wholesome product. Please let me know if you have any questions.

    I wanted to share a few more pictures from the plant.
    Some meat loaf blend heading from the grinder to packaging
    in the Catelli Brothers plant. It contains veal, beef, and pork.

    The carcasses at Catelli Brothers are harvested
    in both the US and Canada. So, the
    Canadian food safety system inspects
     the carcasses that are imported.

    Carcasses at Catelli Brothers are split into two sides like a beef
    or pork carcass, whereas those from Marcho Farms are left intact
    like a lamb carcass. Each company does what works best for them.
    When the meat cutter removes all the meat from the ribs like this,
    we say its ‘Frenched.’ These are Frenched veal racks waiting
    for the meat cutter to cut them into Frenched veal rib chops.
    Veal shanks for Osso Bucco.

    Veal cutlets. They have been tenderized.

    Monday, June 12, 2017

    Raising the calves… the American Milk-fed Veal Industry, part 2

    In May, I was given the opportunity to attend a tour of the American Milk-fed Veal industry, hosted by the American Veal Association. I learned so much about veal that I decided that there was no way that I could squeeze it all into one post, so I am writing a series of posts about veal. Part 1 was an introduction to veal where I shared a few of the things that I didn’t know about veal. This post is going to cover how the calves are raised and fed.

    Veal is primarily produced by male calves from the dairy industry. In some cases, the calves go directly to slaughter from the dairy farm, becoming Bob Veal, which makes up less than 10% of the US veal industry. The veal calves that I saw were Milk-fed Veal, which go to harvest at about 5 months of age and represent about 85% of the US veal industry.
    Individually penned calves at an Amish farm in Pennsylvania. 
    These little guys are pretty young. That metal divider 
    will be removed when they are about 8 weeks old and these 
    two will be housed together.

    On the dairy, calves are given colostrum after they are born and are cared for by the dairy farmer for those first few days after birth. Then, they are sold to a veal farm where they are vaccinated and evaluated for health concerns. The calves are not castrated nor are their horns removed.

    Calves have a very strong instinct to suckle, and they will actually suckle on each other given the chance. This can cause health problems for the calves, so very young calves are housed in individual pens. They can still touch and see their neighbors. This helps the farmer really care for each calf’s needs. If one is sick and stops eating, the farmer will know right away.

    The barns I visited were naturally ventilated, meaning they had huge windows that allowed a nice breeze to cool the calves in the warm months. It was 90°F in Pennsylvania the day I toured, and it was pleasant in the barns. In the winter, the barns are heated and insulated, and the windows can be closed, so even on the coldest days, they don’t get below 50°F inside.
    Dr. Marissa Hake in a veal
    barn in Indiana.

    Are the calves healthy?

    The calves’ health is monitored daily by the farmer and routinely by a company veterinarian. We met the veterinarian for Midwest Veal, Dr. Marissa Hake. The calves’ iron levels are monitored so that they are not anemic and that the veal is high quality. As with all young farm animals, biosecurity on the farms is very important. We stepped in foot baths and wore protective clothing when we visited the farms.

    The calves also arrive and leave with an all-in, all-out policy, meaning that all the calves come together and leave together. That way they are all the same age and stage of development which is easier on the farmer and his concerns for caring for them. Furthermore, not introducing new animals helps to minimize their exposure to diseases and chances of getting sick.
    A foot bath at the door of a veal barn.

    If the little guys get sick, they are treated right away. They may need electrolytes to keep them from getting dehydrated if they get scours (calf diarrhea). If they have respiratory illness or other infections, they get antibiotics. Veal calves are given antibiotics on what is called ‘extended withdrawal.’ All antibiotics have a withdrawal, or a specified amount of time between the last day the antibiotic can be given and when the animal goes to harvest. This allows their body plenty of time to metabolize the antibiotic and eliminate it from their system. Extended withdrawal means that the time is even longer.

    Liquid and dried whey (above).
    Soy lecithin, lard, and coconut oil
    (left to right, below).

    What do they eat?

    The calves are fed a milk replacer made from cheese byproducts. We had the opportunity to tour two different milk replacer manufacturing plants. Calves may be fed a liquid-based milk or a dry milk, just like the liquid or dry formulas we have to choose from for our babies. In Indiana, we toured a liquid-based plant, in Pennsylvania, the milk replacer was dry.

    When butter and cheese are made from milk, the sugars and proteins are removed in a byproduct called whey. Milk replacer, liquid and solid, is made from whey mixed with coconut oil, lard, and a fat from soy called lecithin. A mix of vitamins and minerals are also added in the milk replacer. In the liquid plants, the milk replacer is stored at 40° F, like milk in your fridge. In dry feed plants, it has to go through a drying process before it is bagged in 50 lb. bags.

    All of the incoming ingredients and outgoing milk replacer at the plants are handled using food-grade standards and processes. They are monitored for bacteria and other quality factors like pH. The protein in the milk replacer is adjusted to meet the calves’ needs as they grow.

    Feeding at the farm
    Mixing the milk for the calves.

    Liquid and dry milk replacer must be mixed with water before it is fed to the calves. For mixing, the water and milk are heated to 180°F, which allows it to mix well, but also helps control bacteria that may make the calves sick. Then it is cooled back down to about 102°F to be fed to the calves. The calves are fed milk replacer twice a day.

    When the calves are little, they have to learn to drink out of a bucket, just like babies have to learn to drink from a cup. One Amish family we visited said they let the calves suck on their fingers and lowered their mouths into the buckets of milk. Other farms had little floating nipples that helped teach the calves to drink. Eventually, they figure it out and drink the milk right out of a bucket or trough.

    At the Amish farms, water for milk
    was heated in coal-fired ovens.
    Growing calves

    When the calves get bigger, they eat grain. Most of the calves had grain available to them all the time. Some farmers fed grain wet, others did not.

    Once the calves reached about 8 weeks of age they are transitioned to group housing. In Indiana, the calves actually moved to a different farm where they were penned in groups of 3 or 4. In Pennsylvania, the calves stay where they are, but dividers between pairs of calves were removed and the calves stay in their pen with their closest neighbor. The industry standard according to the American Veal Association (AVA) is to raise all milk-fed veal calves in loose or group housing like this. AVA established a goal in 2007 to transition the industry to group housing and industry leaders indicate that goal will be accomplished by the end of 2017.
    Grain for the calves.

    In the barns, the calves were quiet and happy. I could tell that they were used to people caring for them because many of them came to the fence to be petted or tried to lick my clothes and hands. They happily stuck their heads out of their pens because they were curious about new people.

    The calves are raised on milk replacer and grain until they reach about 500 pounds and 5 months old. Then, they are sent to the processing plant. What I learned about veal processing will be in my next post.

    Friday, June 2, 2017

    The Milk-fed Veal Industry

    As a meat scientist I get lots of questions about all kinds of different meat, and most of the time, I feel pretty confident answering them. If I don’t know the answer, I definitely know someone who does.

    …unless I was asked about veal… Veal was one topic I didn’t feel very knowledgeable about. I grew up in a rural area in the middle of the country where few people served veal at home and few restaurants offered veal on their menus. There aren’t any veal farmers to go ask or veal processing plants to go tour. Honestly, I just avoided questions about veal because I didn’t know the answers.

    Travel with me, you have to take a
    Until… I was invited by the American Veal Association to attend a tour of the American milk-fed veal industry. They brought me to farms in Indiana and Pennsylvania, feed processing plants, and veal processing plants. It was a whirlwind of 3 days of veal tours that I enjoyed with a dairy farm blogger and friend of mine, Krista Stauffer (the Farmers Wifee), a food and ag blogger and new friend, Heather Tallman (A Basil Momma), and my buddy, Donna Moenning from Look East, an ag and food marketing group.

    I learned so much that there’s no way to fit it all into one blog post, so I’m going to write a series on the veal industry. Today’s post will be an overview of what veal is and some big-picture things that I learned. Then I’ll write a post going more in depth about the way the calves are cared for and what they are fed. In true Mom at the Meat Counter fashion, I’ll have a post devoted to veal slaughter and processing. Lastly, I’ll have a post about eating and cooking veal because … It. Is. Amazing!

    What is veal?

    Veal is meat from young calves. While beef is typically harvested at 14 to 16 months of age, veal in the US comes from calves that are younger than 6 months.

    Veal is largely a byproduct of the dairy industry. Cows must have a calf to produce milk, and female calves (heifers) are kept in the herd to become the next generation of dairy cows. Most male calves are sent to the beef industry where they are grown on milk replacer, grass and grain to become beef at about 14-16 months. A smaller percentage of the male calves are used for veal production.

    There are three types of veal.

    1. Bob veal comes from very young calves, typically about a week old. It only makes up about 10% of the veal produced in the US. We didn’t see any bob veal on our tour. These calves go directly from the farm where they are born to harvest.

    2. Milk-fed or special fed veal comes from calves that are about 5 months of age. These calves are raised on veal farms and fed a milk replacer, kinda like baby formula. They are also fed grain when they get old enough to eat it. Milk-fed veal represents about 85% of the US veal industry.

    Some of the cuts available from Catelli
    Brothers Veal. We visited their plant.
    3. Grain-fed veal is a very small part of the industry in the US. These calves are a little older and are fed grain in addition to milk replacer. We didn’t see any grain-fed veal on our tour either.

    Veal is light reddish-pink in color and has a very mild flavor so it is a favorite of chefs because it accepts flavor and seasoning very well. It is extremely tender and lean. Many of the cuts are served bone-in. Veal is very popular in French and Italian cuisine.

    Americans eat less than ½ a pound of veal per person each year (compared to about 57 pounds of beef eaten per person), whereas Canadians eat over 2 pounds of veal and French-Canadians eat about 6 pounds. Each week the US harvests about 4,000 milk-fed veal calves, compared to about 600,000 animals for beef.

    Two young veal calves at an Amish farm we visited.
    I’m going to go into a lot more detail in upcoming posts, but I wanted to share a few of the surprising things that I learned on my tour.

    • About 75% of the veal raised in the US is cared for by Amish and Mennonite families. 
    • Milk-fed veal is located near the cheese producing areas of the country. The milk-replacer is made from cheese byproducts (whey) and added fats.
    • Veal farmers are trained in Veal Quality Assurance programs to ensure that the calves are well cared for. Veal was the first industry to adopt a Quality Assurance program.
    • Veal calves receive milk replacer for about the same amount of time that beef calves drink milk.
    A farmer in Indiana is feeding the milk replacer to his calves.
    They are eager for their breakfast. 
    • Calves are allowed to eat grain once they are old enough. In all the farms I visited, the calves had free choice grain.
    • Calves are closely monitored for anemia and other health concerns.
    • Veal calves are not castrated or dehorned.
    • Until they are about 8 weeks old, veal calves are raised in conditions a lot like all dairy calves. In the barns I saw, the small calves were in individual pens because they will suckle on each other and cause health problems. But, they can see and touch their neighbors.
    • Once they reach 8 weeks or so, calves are housed in group environments. They may be moved to group barns with 3 or 4 calves in a pen, or simply combined in a pen with their neighbor. Group-raised veal was a policy goal of the American Veal Association and over 90% of their farms operate this way today. All of the farms represented by the AVA will use group housing by the end of this year.
    • Calves are never tethered or restrained. The barns were quiet and the calves all seemed very happy. 
    • Milk-fed veal calves are harvested at about 5 months and weigh about 500 pounds. 

    This tour was such an eye opening experience. The veal I ate while on the tour was absolutely delicious. I am planning to buy some veal to serve to my family and will definitely order veal if I see it in a restaurant. I know that the animals are raised in good conditions and well cared for. I’m confident that the harvest and processing met my standards of humane animal treatment and food safety.

    I hope to help answer some questions and concerns that people may have about veal with this series of posts. If you have a question or a comment, please leave it below.

    Please know that I am tolerant of differing opinions, but I will not tolerate abusive or threatening language. All the comments are monitored by me before they post.

    Here are a few more links to info about veal

    American Veal Association

    Catelli Brothers

    Marcho Farms

    Midwest Veal

    Strauss Brands Veal

    Veal Made Easy

    Veal Quality Assurance

    Thursday, May 4, 2017

    It turned to the DARK SIDE: Why did my meat turn brown?

    Today is STAR WARS day. May the 4th (be with you). I’ve had several questions lately about meat that has turned brown. Has it really turned to the DARK SIDE?

    Everyone that has bought meat has seen this happen. Maybe you take you steaks out of the package, and a little bit of brown is under the sticker on the package. Maybe you open a package of ground beef, and a little bit of brown is on the bottom of the package. Maybe you are marinating some pork chops in the fridge and they were brown in the afternoon when you got them out to cook.

    It happens, and you have questions. Is it still safe to eat? Did the butcher hide this little spot under the sticker? Why did it turn brown? As a meat scientist, this is one of the most popular questions I answer.

    Is it safe? If it has been kept at a cold temperature and is not way past its best-by date, most likely, yes, it is safe to eat. Smell it. You can’t smell the bacteria that will make you sick, but smelly bacteria will let you know if the meat has been at stored unsafe temperatures. If it’s not smelly, cook it using a meat thermometer.

    Now, about that color
    People ask me or tell me all the time about how the butcher was trying to fool them by putting the brown spot under the sticker or how they put the fresh meat on top of the old brown meat. I realize it looks suspect, but that’s not what’s happening. It’s actually the sticker or the package that makes the meat turn brown.

    I’ve talked about the changes in meat color before. It was one of my first posts and is actually one of my favorite topics and the subject of many of my research projects.

    Meat turns from red to brown due to OXIDATION. If you think way back to chemistry class, you might remember that oxidation is the loss of electrons from a molecule. Meat color is controlled by a protein called myoglobin, and in the middle of myoglobin, there is an Iron. When that iron loses an electron, the protein changes shape and looks brown. We call the brown protein metmyoglobin.

    So, what causes the oxidation? The change in meat color from red to brown can be caused by several events.
    You pull off the packaging, and there
    is the brown spot! Why?

    1.  Very low levels of oxygen. That is what is happening underneath the sticker and in some packages of meat. We know that the oxygen in the air reacts with the myoglobin to make it turn red. However, when that oxygen is blocked by a sticker or part of the package, the level of oxygen is drastically lowered, causing oxidation and the brown color.

    2. Time in storage. (Warning: nerdy meat scientist answer) This one is a little more complicated. When the meat turns red, the oxygen really only penetrates a little layer of the surface of the cut. So, you have a little red layer on top of a purple layer. Between those two layers of red and purple, there is a low oxygen environment and oxidation happens, so a little bit of brown, metmyoglobin forms. 

    Luckily, the muscle has the ability to give the electrons back to the myoglobin (that’s called reduction, the opposite of oxidation), turning it back to purple. But, eventually, the ability of the meat to donate electrons runs out, and the brown color remains, creating a brown layer between the red and the purple. At first, you can’t see it, but with time, that brown layer will work its way to the surface that people can see. 

    These steps are sped up in meat that has been on the shelf in the cooler longer (like aged meats) or by higher temperatures.

    3. Salts and marinades. People love to add flavor to their meats in the form of marinades and rubs. I had a question about this just last week. Someone had bought some pork chops and placed them in the fridge to marinate all day. When they got them out to cook them, the chops had turned brown. Salt is actually a pro-oxidant. It causes oxidation. Some spices can cause oxidation, too. So it was probably the marinade that caused the meat to turn brown.

    4. Freezing. Sometimes freezing meat can cause the color to change.

    5. Bacteria. Yep, bacteria may produce sulfides, peroxides or other metabolites in the meat that cause it to turn brown. They also cause the meat to have a spoiled smell. We call these spoilage bacteria. They usually grow when meat has been stored at temperatures above 40°F, or stored for too long a time. When these bacteria grow, the meat turns brown, smelly, and maybe even slimy. Brown color with a putrid smell and slime are good indicators that pathogenic bacteria have also had a chance to grow and the meat may not be safe to eat. 

    So, if your meat turns to the dark side, just give it a sniff. If it’s not smelly, you can probably still cook it. 

    (Also, full disclosure, I'm really more of a Star Trek gal. Live long and prosper.)

    Thursday, April 27, 2017

    Eating Beef Without Your Heart Having a Cow

    One of our former students is currently in pharmacy school. Being an Animal Science major in pharmacy school, he finds himself answering lots of questions about animals and the food industry. He and I were visiting about some of the preconceived ideas people have about beef and its effects on the heart. So, I suggested that he write a guest blog post about it. I think he did a great job!

    Let me introduce you to Mr. Brad Briggs:
    Brad's #meatcounterselfie 

    My name is Brad Briggs. I’m a third-year pharmacy student at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, but I also have a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in animal science from the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. To a lot of people, these might seem like two totally different worlds, but they actually have a lot in common. Pharmacy wants to keep patients healthy while keeping the cost of healthcare to the most reasonable level possible. Farmers and ranchers focus on producing products that are safe, affordable, and the highest possible quality. We both care about the consumer in terms of safety, affordability, and quality of our products and services. Pharmacists and farmers both want their consumers to be happy and healthy.

    We spend hours upon hours in pharmacy school learning drugs, interactions, side effects, treatment algorithms etc. to treat our patients in the most effective manner possible, but we also focus on non-pharmacological interventions including healthy eating habits. A large part of what keeps you healthy is what you choose to put in your cupboard and refrigerator. Sometimes certain meats, like beef, can get a bad rap when it comes to things like heart health. I love beef, and I also care about heart health. The two things are not mutually exclusive. My goal in this article is to talk about dietary recommendations for fat and sodium intake in regards to heart health while making recommendations on cuts of beef that help you stay within those goals.

    First I would like to start with some basic definitions (I was a high school science teacher for two years, bear with me). Saturated fats are simply fats that don’t have any double bonds between carbon atoms. That just means that most saturated fats are solids at room temperature. Examples of saturated fats are butter, cheese, and various other animal fats. Trans fats are fats with kinks in their chemical structure. In many cases, they are artificially produced. The restaurant industry commonly uses trans fats in their deep fryers because they can be used longer without having to change the oil. Some places like New York have outlawed the use of trans fats in food preparation because they have such a negative impact on health. Trans fats raise bad (LDL) cholesterol and lower good (HDL) cholesterol. Trans fats are commonly found in baked goods like donuts, pie crusts, and biscuits among other things. Lean beef is defined by the USDA as 3.5 ounces or 100 grams of cooked beef that contains less than 10 grams total fat, 4.5 grams saturated fat, and 95 milligrams of cholesterol. Extra-lean beef is defined as a 3.5 ounces or 100 grams of cooked beef that contains less than 5 grams total fat, 2 grams saturated fat, and 95 milligrams of cholesterol.

    Lean beef is not the white whale of the meat industry. There are several tasty options for lean healthy cuts of beef in your local grocery store. There are actually 29 cuts of lean beef that have a total fat content that is between that of a skinless chicken breast and a skinless chicken thigh. A safe bet for lean beef when shopping is to look for “loin” or “round” on the package. You can always ask the butcher if you have questions as well. The butcher at my local chain grocery store is extremely friendly and helpful.

    The American Heart Association gives us our basic guidelines for fat and salt intake for a heart healthy lifestyle. The recommended intake of saturated fat for someone trying to lower their cholesterol is 5 to 6% of their total daily calories. For someone eating 2,000 calories a day, that is about 13 grams of saturated fat total per day. To put that into beef terms, that
    is about 6.8 ounces of top sirloin steak or 5.6 ounces of 95% lean ground beef which are both considered lean cuts of beef. The American Heart Association does not have a specific value for trans-fat consumption. Best practice would be to generally avoid anything that has added trans-fat by reading the nutrition labels. Excessive trans-fat should not be a major concern when purchasing beef products. As far as salt, the AHA recommends less than 2,300 milligrams a day. Ideally an adult would consume less than 1,500 milligrams of salt per day, but even reducing whatever your current sodium level is by 1,000 milligrams a day can have a very positive impact on blood pressure and heart health. The naturally occurring sodium in beef is negligible ranging from about 30 to 60 milligrams for a 3-ounce serving.

    The main issue with sodium and beef comes with preparation. Many marinades, steak sauces, and seasoning preparations are LOADED with sodium. One tablespoon of A1 steak sauce has 280 milligrams of sodium. A tablespoon of Italian dressing has 243 milligrams of sodium. A tablespoon of soy sauce has 920 milligrams of sodium which is almost half of the total daily limit. A teaspoon of taco seasoning has 215 milligrams of sodium. However, you don’t have to sacrifice your taste buds in order to save your circulatory system. There are many low sodium or even salt free substitutes. In my own kitchen, we make our own taco seasoning without salt. We also use salt free seasonings that can be purchased in the seasoning section of the grocery store. Being a meat lover, I also often grill steaks straight from the butcher without additional seasoning. Mother nature can do all the seasoning work for you!

    Beef can be a heart friendly meat choice, but like in most aspects of life, moderation is the key. It is important to have a healthy diet as well as some sort of exercise routine in order to have a healthy heart. Your pharmacist or other healthcare provider can always answer any questions you may have about food choices or salt substitutes that might be right for you. It has been my pleasure to be your future pharmacist at the meat counter.

    Brad Briggs is a Student Pharmacist at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. He received a B.S. and M.S. in animal science from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville which introduced him to the world of agriculture. Moving to North Little Rock, AR after graduate school eventually landed him at the head of a high school biology classroom at North Little Rock High School. After two years on the other side of the desk, he applied and was accepted to the UAMS College of Pharmacy where he has been able to use his love of teaching and science background to start educating his patients for a better state of health. He looks forward to practicing pharmacy in a hospital setting working directly with patients to teach them about their medicine to improve their chronic and acute disease states.

    Thursday, April 20, 2017

    Don’t test your luck: food safety and pot lucks

    Happy Easter!

    Our church, Presley Chapel UMC.
    We'd love to have you join us!
    Our little church has an Easter tradition of a church pot luck after the egg hunt.  As I was making my dishes on Sunday morning, and loading them in the back of my car for the ¾-mile trip to our country church, my meat-scientist husband and I had several discussions about the safest preparation and storage plans for our dishes. That got me thinking that lots of people probably have questions about preparing, storing and traveling with food for a potluck.

    Food safety is especially important at potluck dinners because you are preparing food for a wide variety of people, including vulnerable people like the elderly, or the sick, or small children. The food is more likely to sit out a while before being served, and lots of people have probably handled it. As with any food prep, be sure to remember the 4 steps of food safety Clean, Cook, Chill, and Separate. Other than that, I have a few other thoughts specific to potluck foods.

    First, clean.

    Be sure to wash your hands and make sure your utensils and dishes are clean. Sometimes, my casserole dishes get a little neglected in the back of the cabinet, so I washed them before I started. Deadly bacteria may live on dust and adding wet food and warm temperatures can stimulate them to grow and produce toxins that make people very sick, very fast.


    Make sure you keep foods that you plan to cook, like raw meat and eggs, separated from those that you will eat without cooking, like breads and fresh fruit and vegetables. Keep the dishes and utensils separate, too. When there’s space, I try to prepare uncooked foods in a completely separate part of the kitchen than ready-to-eat foods.


    When you are preparing a dish for a potluck, it is especially important to use a meat thermometer on meats and dishes containing eggs. Make sure you get things cooked to 160°F (165°F for poultry).  Even dishes that don’t contain meat should probably be cooked to 160°F, that should help kill any bacteria that may cause spoilage or could grow during the storage times and make people sick.

    (At potluck dinners, you don’t have much control on how long the dishes are held, but you can be extra cautious about cleanliness and cookery to eliminate bacteria in the dish initially. That way, fewer bacteria are present to grow in the dish before it’s served.) 


    Picnics or potlucks,
    get your leftovers in the fridge!
    Knowing when to chill a dish for potluck is hard. I made three dishes on Sunday morning at 8 am. I knew that we would probably not eat until after 12:15. So, I had to decide if I wanted to keep my dishes warm for 4 hours or chill them down and heat them back up. Our church is small, and we have a brand new oven in the kitchen. I decided to put them in the fridge and warm them back up before we served lunch. The main concern is to minimize the amount of time your dishes spend in the Danger Zone of temperature (40°F to 140°F) before they are served.


    When you cook your food and it reaches 160°F or higher, most of the bacteria are killed. So, keeping it covered will keep new bacteria out during the trip to the dinner. Some of the people at church on Sunday, covered their dishes with foil when they cooked it, then covered the foil with those plastic lids that come with the casserole dishes. I thought that was a great idea, once the food was cooked, it didn’t have to be uncovered until it was served. I was not as pleased with my foil covering on my dishes, but it got the job done. 


    When you live ¾ of a mile from church, you can throw the softball stuff to one side of your trunk and transport your dishes for potluck in the back of your car (The hills didn’t cause them to spill! YAY!). Most people don’t have that luxury, so you have to think about traveling with your potluck dish.
    My best advice is simply to keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold.

    Use a cooler with ice packs for cold dishes like coleslaw or deviled eggs. If a cooler is too bulky, you might just pack some ice in a large baggie and place your dishes on it. For warm dishes, there are some great thermal casserole carriers that you can buy or put them in a cooler to keep them warm. If you don’t have far to go, just wrapping the dishes in towels will help keep them warm.


    If you need to reheat your dish, be sure to use a thermometer and heat it to 160°F. Take the temperature in a few places in the dish. Some ovens don’t heat evenly, especially older ones, and you want to make sure the whole dish warm.


    Just like at home, you don’t want those leftovers to set out at room temperature for more than 2 hours. Get them covered and in the fridge as soon as you can.

    Other thoughts.

    ·       Preparing single-serving items, like fried chicken, green bean bundles, or deviled eggs, minimizes the number of people who handle the food, which would minimize the chances of contamination.
    ·        You may consider listing any allergens that your food may contain on an index card to accompany your dish. Common allergens include wheat, dairy, eggs, tree nuts, peanuts, shell fish, fish and soy. If there are people with diabetes in your crowd, you may think about making dishes without sugar.
    ·        If you have a good distance to travel, you may consider making dishes that are less likely to spoil. For instance, you may make a savory green bean bundle rather than the classic green bean casserole with cream of mushroom soup. Salty and sugary dishes are less likely to spoil that dishes that contain more cream and mayonnaise.
    ·        When taste-testing your dishes, be sure to use a new spoon every time. Don’t be a double dipper.
    ·        If you’ve been sick, just go buy something from the store for the potluck. Fried chicken, drinks, ice. Don’t try to prepare anything. You don’t want to spread your illness.

    I love potluck dinners, but they can be dangerous if people are not careful about food safety. I hope that you can feel a little more confident about preparing food for them in the future. Please ask me any questions you may have in the comments.

    Tuesday, February 14, 2017

    White striping in chicken

    Dr. Christine Alvarado and Dr. Casey Owens
    the Moms at the Poultry Counter
    I have recently seen a few social media posts and had a few questions about white striping in chicken breasts. And honestly, I don’t know as much about chicken as I would like to, so I didn’t have very thorough answers to people’s questions.

    So, as a scientist, what do I do when I don’t know something? I ask questions and do a little research.

    As a mom, when I don’t know something? I ask my friends. Luckily, I have some really smart friends in Poultry Science who know more about chicken than I know about beef.

    Dr. Casey Owens and Dr. Christine Alvarado (pics and bios below) are moms and Poultry Scientists who have been conducting research on the white striping that we sometimes see in chicken breasts. I asked them to write a few words for my blog about it.

    So today we hear from The Moms at the Poultry Counter! 

    White striping in chicken? What is that and is it harmful? What you need to know from Scientist Moms…..

    Recently, I am sure many of you have been hearing about white striping in chicken breast meat – everything from ‘its fine’ to ‘don’t eat the chicken’.  So, we just thought we should clarify some information.  We have conducted scientific research in this particular area and this research may be misrepresented and/or misinterpreted in some cases by the general public. Many of our studies have been written for an audience consisting of scientists and industry in efforts to identify these quality conditions and improve them.

    We as moms and scientists want to clarify that white striping in chicken breast meat is absolutely safe to eat – there is no food safety concern. We also wanted to make sure that as moms and scientists, everyone knows we feed chicken breast meat to our own children knowing we have the highest safety and quality standards in the USA. 

    Now on to the science….. White striping is a quality factor in chicken breast meat caused by deposits of fat in the muscle during the bird’s growth and development (i.e., the bird’s life). In fact, it is similar to marbling in red meat.  Consequently, protein levels decrease slightly as fat increases.  However, white striping can occur in meat in varying quantities (also observed visually).  Meat that we consider to be mild or moderate may have striping that appears as very fines lines.  It isn’t always noticeable or necessarily detracting from its appearance. This level has been observed in chickens for many years; it just isn’t always noticeable.
    Normal chicken breast (left) vs. a breast with white striping (right)

    The striping we refer to as severe can be more abundant and prominent.  In more recent years, there has been more meat with increased severity of white striping and this is the potential quality issue. With that said, fat is present in any chicken breast meat in low amounts anyway so while there may be a slightly higher fat content in white striped breast fillets when compared to those that aren’t white striped, the overall fat content is still low.  Some references in social media are citing that white striping can increase fat by 224% and we know that sound like a lot, but when starting fat content is only 0.5%, that doesn’t result in much of an increase at all. Other studies state a much lower increase in fat (224% vs 84%); regardless, even a 100% increase would only double the amount (e.g., 0.5 to 1%), still resulting in low fat content.  The same is true for protein though the protein levels generally decrease as white striping increases, but again in very small quantities (2-3% decrease).

    So what has changed? Why are we seeing more white striping in chicken meat? Chickens used in the meat industry are young, but they are now generally growing faster and bigger due to better management, nutrition, animal welfare, and genetics. Therefore, their growth and development is also changing and this can lead to more fat deposits in the meat.  By raising bigger birds, it means that fewer birds can be raised for the same amount of meat and at the same costs, thereby a relatively inexpensive, quality protein can be provided for people to eat.   

    Another question from consumers is why don’t we just slow the growth down? Slower growing birds are less sustainable and will result in more birds being raised to produce the same amount of meat.  Also slow growing birds and organic birds have white striping as well.  So researchers are working on ways to reduce white striping through different feeds and ways of breeding the chickens. 

    Our research studies use models to create white striping in the chickens, so we can study it better.  These studies are published to help the industry with improving quality and not to be misinterpreted that this meat is not safe or wholesome.  So, when you read information about white striping in chicken, don’t forget that we are moms and we have confidence that our industry produces a safe and high quality product for consumers. 

     Christine Z. Alvarado, Ph.D. and Casey M. Owens, Ph.D.

    Dr. Christine Alvarado earned her B.S. in Biomedical Science ('93) and MS and Ph.D. (2001) in Food Science from Texas A&M University. She has been on faculty at Virginia Tech, Texas Tech and is now an Associate Professor in the Department of Poultry Science at Texas A&M University. Dr. Alvarado’s applied national and international research program primarily focuses on improving meat quality and process efficiency for poultry processors and determining functionality of non-meat ingredients used in further processed poultry. Dr. Alvarado also conducts research in food safety with an emphasis on working with processors to evaluate current and new innovative antimicrobial applications for efficacy and cost effectiveness.  
    Dr. Alvarado is a Novus International Teaching award recipient and currently teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in poultry processing, poultry further processing, an undergraduate capstone poultry science systems course, and a graduate seminar. Dr Alvarado has 5 children, loves to teach students to be agricultural advocates, and loves to help empower students to be better leaders in society. 

    Dr. Casey Owens received her B.S. degree in Poultry Science and her M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in Food Science and Technology from Texas A&M University in 1994, 1996, and 1999, respectively.  She joined the faculty of the Department of Poultry Science at the University of Arkansas in 2000 and she is currently an Associate Professor and holds the Novus International Professorship of Poultry Science.  She is also an Adjunct Associate Professor in the Department of Food Science.  Her research has a strong emphasis on evaluating production and processing factors affecting poultry meat quality including tenderness, water holding capacity, color and sensory attributes.  Her recent research has focused on quality of meat from broilers in big bird market programs including muscle myopathies such as white striping and woody breast, and issues with meat texture.  Past research has included meat tenderness and methods for assessing meat tenderness with the development of the Meullenet Owens Razor Shear, pale, soft, exudative poultry meat, and the use of marination in poultry meat for improved meat quality.  She has published over 100 peer-reviewed articles, book chapters, and popular press articles as well as over 100 research abstracts. She has given over 45 invited presentations nationally and internationally. She is a Subject Editor for Poultry Science in the Processing and Products section. In addition to her research, Dr. Owens teaches Egg and Meat Technology and Value Added Muscle Foods at the undergraduate and graduate levels for students in Poultry Science, Food Science, and Animal Science. She also teaches industry workshops related meat and egg processing and further processing. She serves as an undergraduate academic advisor, and Dr. Owens has directed the research of numerous Ph.D. and M.S. graduate students in addition to undergraduate research. Dr. Owens has two children.