Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Branded Beef - What does it all mean?

So what exactly do all those terms that you are bombarded with in your local supermarket chain actually mean?

I'll try to clear up some of the confusion. Supermarkets are synonymous with "branding" beef products. What does this do for you, as a consumer? Well, in my personal opinion, its purpose is to flat out "trick" you into buying something that, with the proper education, you would not purchase.
Going to the meat department in a chain store can be similar to a visit to the dentist. You know you have to do it, but with all the shiny instruments and bright lights you know pain may be inflicted.

Branded Beef has been around quite awhile now, but has gained great popularity in more recent years. Consumers can be coerced into buying with specific wordage or sharp labels. In many instances, it's basically boils down to a great marketing tool. I find that education is key when you're visiting a meat dept. I hope to provide some tools to allow you to sort through the bright lights and the fancy wording.

Branded beef is not necessarily a bad thing. The practice has its pros and cons. If you are aware of the accurate definitions on the labels, choosing a branded beef can offer some consistent qualities for flavor and tenderness. That's the pro. The con is, well the company trying to convince you to purchase their meats is the same company setting the requirements for the specific brand name. Knowing the terminology is your resource for sorting through the clutter on the label.

There are basically three types of branded beef.
1. Breed specific 2. Company specific 3. Store branded.

Let’s break those down.
1.Breed specific - This particular type is based on the breed of livestock used in the meat production. Most notable forms would be Hereford, Angus, or Kobe Beef. So what does this mean for you? Well, some breeds of livestock have certain characteristics that work well for both the consumer and the meat production / livestock producer industries. Some will disagree with me, but as a general rule, breed isn't an important factor when visiting the meat case. You're unlikely to find Kobe beef at the supermarket, at least not in these parts. Most any beef cattle breed, with proper care and feeding procedures, can produce excellent taste qualities and tenderness. Grade is of most importance when visiting the retail meat case! We'll talk about that a little later. Just because a piece of meat has a "brand" on it, doesn't mean it has a premium grade! I cannot emphasize this enough. Most branded beef contain meats from all grade ranges.
2. Company specific - These types have requirements are all over the place. Examples are grades, marbling, primal sizes, and restrictions on pesticides, antibiotics and growth hormones, or any combination of one to all of those. The standards are set by the company creating the brand. These are difficult to weed through. The pro is, if you find a company specific brand that you are pleased with, you can expect the same quality to be consistent each time you purchase the brand.
3. Store branded - Grocery store chains have jumped on the branding bandwagon. Again, these requirements to meet the brand name are all over the place and may or may not include one of all or any of the requirements as listed above. Basically, it's like buying the store brand ketchup over Heinz. It's a private label carried by the specific store.

Some common branded beef in our area would be "Private Selection" at Kroger, and IGA carries "Certified Angus Beef" (which would fit in the breed specific type), and Wal-Mart has one the offer also, but I have forgotten the name.
Now if that's not clear as gets worse.

What do words like "certified", "natural", "organic", "certified organic"...the list goes on and on...really mean?

Okay, let’s break it down. Starting with "Certified".
When you see the word "Certified" in the brand name, it means nothing more than the specifications set by the branding company are monitored and verified by a third party. That's it. No more no less. It certainly doesn't mean that the meat is better. It's a fancy word that appears to be more credible to consumers, so they use it.

Now what does "natural" mean on a beef label?
Natural on a beef label means that the beef contained in that package, is minimally processed, with no additives. It does NOT mean that the beef was fed or raised in a natural way. It does NOT mean that the beef was grass fed or finished. All fresh beef sold in retail store meat departments would qualify to be "natural" beef, as long as an ingredient statement is not added to the package. An ingredient statement must be added to show water injections, tenderizers, color enhancers, marinades, etc...Did I say water injections? Yes I DID! Read your meat labels. Just because the sticker price is low, doesn't mean you're getting a good deal. Water doesn't improve tenderness or juiciness. It just evaporates! Buy you may be paying for it, if you aren't reading the labels.

Now for Organic.

Organic is NOT organic unless it carries the USDA seal for organic. I have my qualms with "organic", but I won't go into that right now. I don't have enough room in my inbox for all the hate mail. If you are insistent on buying organic beef, then look for this seal. If it's not there, it's not organic. I would, however, like to dispel some myths regarding organic.

Myth #1 Organic Beef was raised entirely on pasture. Organic does NOT necessarily mean that the beef were "Grass Fed and/or Finished". Organic beef can also be Grain Finished.

Myth #2 Organic Beef is produced on family farms. In all reality, much of the organic beef in today's markets are raised in large numbers by large factory farms. Organic, by no means, implies that beef were raised in small numbers on small family farms.

Myth #3 Organic Beef is safer. Beef produced organically is by no means "safer". All beef are handled and processed under the same safety regulations. "Greener" perhaps, but that's debatable, but not safer. I'm sure my inbox will light up after that one.

Myth #4 Grass Finished Beef are all Organic. Again, simply not true. Look for the seal, if you prefer the organic types.

Organic is a discussion all on its own, with drastic regulations and enough paperwork to deplete small forests. There are pros and cons, as always. But many myths are born regarding organic beef. Consumers should be aware to make sound choices.

Now that we've cleared up some of the labeling confusions, let’s look at the true taste factors.
Does Grass Finished Beef taste different from the more conventional Grain Finished Beef?
Yes. There is a difference
. My personal preference is grain finished. I desire the tenderness and marbling that only good old fashioned grains can provide. What does grain finished mean? Cattle are pastured much of their lives. When they reach a particular age/size, they are giving a balanced mix of grains and forages (hay,etc...) . In my opinion, Grass finished meats tend to have a "gamey" taste. If wild game is for you, then perhaps your preference would be grass finished. The old adage rings are what you eat. If you eat grass, you taste and smell like grass. Typically grass finished beef should be slowly cooked and marinated. Grass finished beef typically will only grade Select, at best, on the USDA grading scale. That means that there is a less abundance (or lack thereof altogether) of marbling and tenderness. If it's healthy concerns that leads you to grass finished beef, you may want to check the label on the marinade you may be using. You may just be adding back in all the things you're trying to avoid.
What do all those grades mean?
In my professional opinion, this is the most valuable piece of information you need to select the meats for your family. Skip past the branded names and flashy slogans and look for the grade. If the grade is not listed on the package, there is a reason. The grading system is a voluntary system. Basically, an authorized USDA Grader comes into the plant and grades the carcass on the rail. He's looking for marbling factors, age, and size of ribeye, among other things. The grading system provides a uniform standard in quality. Unfortunately, the USDA grading scale has undergone some changes over the years. Most notably in the 80's, when the current "select" grade was changed from "good". Consumers were more likely to purchase meats that touted the words "Select" over "good". Believe me when I say this, you will NOT FIND A SINGLE PIECE OF SELECT GRADE MEAT IN MY STORE. I refuse to carry it. Simply put, it's inferior in all aspects. In my personal opinion, it is an excellent marketing strategy among the industry. It's also been quite successful. Consumers have been duped into thinking that Select grade meats are superior. Select meats are healthier and leaner tastes better. NOT TRUE. Lean does not taste better, Select is not "healthier". Quite frankly, it's easier and faster to grow. Less feed, less time, equal quicker turnarounds and better profits. NOT BETTER TASTING MEATS. Now I know my inbox will light up. We at John's Custom Meats are not only professional butchers by trade; we're also small cattle farmers. We know our beef. If you're budget will allow it, choose USDA Choice or Prime meats. They are superior in every aspect.

USDA Prime is the top of the USDA grade food chain. It's the best of the best. It's also the most valuable and most scarce. Prime meats take time and added expense. Less than 2% beef nationwide are graded USDA Prime. The majority of that small percentage designated to restaurants and high end meat retail outlets. If your budget supports it and you can find it, choose Prime. It is superior in every way.

We love Dry Aged USDA Prime Beef, so we raise them ourselves on our small farm. No need for growth hormones or antibiotics. We finish our beef the old fashioned way with time and money and patience. Our beef are born and raised on our farm. They are not locked up in "feedlots". They are free to roam and forage on pasture. Our livestock are finished on grains to ensure taste and tenderness.

USDA Choice is second in line on the grading scale. This is a great economical choice. Still plenty of flavor with enough marbling to make a great steak. This is typically economical and affordable. This is also the least grade that I will offer in my store. USDA Choice is flavorful and dependable. It's usually found in most grocery stores, but you need to look for the shield. I cannot repeat myself enough....CHOOSE GRADE over fancy words any day of the week.

USDA SELECT is the lowest grade typically found in a supermarket or retail environment. There is little to no marbling and quite frankly little to no taste. This is where you will find the fancy words enticing you to buy! Buy! Buy! It cheaper for the chain store to purchase and easier to "markup". It's touted as "healthy" or "lean". It's lean alright. Remember, lean does not translate to yummy or tender. You'll need some tenderizer with this grade and I would even recommend a slow cooker. I also recommend heaping amounts of A-1 or gravy to disguise the taste factor.

The basics to remember: Avoid being fooled by words like: Premium, Superior, Award Winning, Angus, Blue Ribbon, Natural, Prime, Quality...these words are just words. Subjective, at best, and typically translate into “I’m about to OVERPAY!” There is no uniform grading scale for blue ribbon that I am aware of. Stick with the USDA Grade Shields. If they have one, they will gladly advertise it. Be more aware when you visit you local supermarket. Words like "untrimmed" mean basically that you are paying for meat that you will trim away. Did you really get a "good deal"? Added water is common practice. It's not a good deal if you are paying for weight that will evaporate.
Lastly, come visit us at John's Custom Meats. I can guarantee you quality grades of USDA Prime and USDA Choice. I can guarantee that if you purchase USDA Prime Kentucky Grown Beef that you are receiving oven ready meats, pulled directly from the carcass by a 4th generation meat cutter. Dry aged 14-21 days and ready for your favorite recipe. That brings me to the topic for our next discussion: Beef Dry Aging vs. Wet Aging – The debate continues… Stay Tuned!