All the Meat, and Nothing but the Meat

Monday’s Grocery Theory post here, sneaking in just over the wire. So far Grocery Theory posts have introduced a ranking of Austin grocery stores, methods of storing when stocking up, the types of shopping we do and weekly planning.

This week I’ll be posting about meat.  Chicken, fish, beef, lamb, mutton, offal, what have you, this week we’re just going to call it all ‘meat’.  If you’re a vegetarian, this column will be useless to you, and all I can do is promise a similar discussion of vegetables sometime soon. Excepting beets, because holy cow those taste like dirt.

I see two extremes in the purchase of meat. On one side, there is purchasing meat that was sustainably, organically raised by farmers who treat their animals humanely and respectfully.   On the other end is purchasing meat that has been grown by a factory interested in maximizing a profit and that thinks of their product as a commodity.

There is a lot of middle ground, grey area, labeling misconception, and governmental regulation in-between and around those two extremes.  There is organic meat, natural meat, pesticide-free meat, local meat, solution-enhanced meat, free-range meat, grass-fed meat, organically fed meat, water-injected meat and probably a dozen more I haven’t listed.

How to decide what to purchase, when you’ve got more options and price-points than a brain can hold?  For produce, there’s the shortcut I try to follow, The Dirty Dozen, which you have likely read about.  Meat doesn’t have any such clear-cut line, with the exception of the rule about big fish having more mercury than other fish, so it’s good to limit intake of tuna and other large fish.  Other than that, we’re left floundering around (tip your waitresses, we’ll be here all week!).

Large grocers aren’t likely to help us much, as this Washington Post article shows. To sum up:  A grocery store chain decided  to start labeling their meat ‘USDA Graded’. Which seems ok when it’s a nice shiny blue sticker, I guess. But read that sticker, and it means that the USDA graded it, that’s all.  Doesn’t mean it’s Choice or Select, Prime or Dog Food, only that the USDA graded it. The USDA grades nearly all meat sold in the US, so that’s not really a useful label.  Given the store ordinarily sold Select, and had previously labeled packages that way, there’s a conclusion to be drawn, and I leave that as an exercise for you, Dear Reader.

Farmer’s Markets can help us a lot. You’re likely talking to a person integral to the care and butchering of the animal you’re taking home to eat, and like as not they’ll answer anything you want to know regarding the care and feeding of your meal-to be.

We all know the problem here, though. Sing it with me, ~~~Meat for a week from HEB, I say!, at the price  for just one day, at you, my lovely Farmer’s Market~~~. What, you didn’t know ~~~ meant sing? AND you don’t know that tune? I lament. Moving on.

So, somewhere, we have to find a happy middle. One that won’t break the bank, ruin our karma, increase our pesticide load, and will taste good.  Here’s how I break that down, to feel like I’m using our grocery dollars in the best way.

  • Whenever possible, I do buy meat at the farmers market. My budget hasn’t held that room in a while, but I have still purchased ground meat or soup bones, which are usually the least expensive cuts. If you’ve got a family that will eat kidneys/liver, you can sometimes get a deal on those, too. If you have a CSA, I know several in town have a meat option, and I personally have bought 1/4 and 1/2 a cow before. Those were great options, but require investment (for a CSA an ongoing commitment).
  • I never buy anything that’s been 12-15% ‘enhanced’ with a ‘solution’. If I want to brine something, I brine it at home, where I know what I’m doing. I don’t want to pay for water in my meat. Water is heavy and I’m paying by the pound.  This is NEVER in big print on the package, and you need to look. If it seems like a cheap price, there’s often a solution involved. Even ‘Natural’ on the label doesn’t mean there isn’t an injected solution, just that the ingredients in the solution are natural.
  • I buy the biggest, most minimally processed cuts I can. This means briskets, whole chickens, and whole fish.*
  • If certified organic meat is on sale to within a dollar or so of what I might usually pay, I consider it. Am I sure it will not end up leftovers? Can I freeze it and should stock up?
  • If any kind of meat is on sale for less than $1 a lb? I’m considering buying it. Because I have freezer space and that’s cheap. At $2 a lb, I’m thinking about how much I use it, and how likely organic is to come close. Often, I stock up at this price as well.

I thought I had something more complicated, but turns out, that’s it. Organic if it’s on enough of a sale, but really, other than that I shop the loss-leader meat.  I try not to stress about pesticides, because in meat they mostly reside in the fat which is trimmed for most meals.  Excepting bbq, and I’ll just have to ride that out, I guess. I don’t feel great about it, and wish it were different. Thinking about purchases is the first step though!

What are your priorities in meat purchases? Do you only buy organic? Where do you think  the best organic prices are? The whole chickens at Sprouts were the cheapest I’d seen in a while, but I haven’t been watching closely until recently. Is there a Farmer’s Market or CSA that you think is well-priced?

Related links:

This is a clickable list defining terms you might find on labels of meat or produce.  I found it interesting that all of these phrases: No Antibiotic Residues, Antibiotic Free, Drug Free, Chemical Free, No Antibiotic Growth Promotants are not allowed on meat products.

Because I found it while researching this article here’s the link to the USDA grading rules.  I find it interesting because I buy whole chickens often, but haven’t ever noticed the mark. Next time I’ll look.

* In the event I next buy fish, I’ll buy a whole one and report. But if I buy anything at the fish counter, I usually buy shellfish, and my only rule there is it’s got to be from the USA. I’m not even sure why, but I must have read it somewhere. And now so have you, so you should do that too.

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