What the Boss Likes – Wisdom from the meat department

oh the odd things I find in Microsoft clip art...
oh the odd things I find in Microsoft clip art…

Here are some random tips, observations and general remarks about a supermarket’s meat department. They are offered to explain some things and make the experience better on both sides of the counter.  Note that they may not all apply to every situation or store and are my own opinions. If you are a vegetarian or vegan, you may not want to read much further. I am a happy meat eater and know all of the arguments for and against.

First, and foremost, a meat department in a grocery store is not a butcher shop. The meat department does not get entire animals to cut up into custom cuts. Commensurately, the folks there are not trained to do so. Some of us do know a fair amount about how this is done but we often don’t have the supplies, tools or approval to do it. I’d love to own my own butcher shop. Ah, maybe if I win the Powerball this week….

This should go without saying, but be nice to the folks who work in your local meat department and we’ll often do our best to help you as much as we are allowed to do. Treat us as “untouchables” or less  than you because we work retail,  and we’ll be only as courteous as will keep our jobs.

Most grocery stores are trying to shrink labor costs, and insurance costs, and that means we are doing less and less onsite. That means band saws and grinders are vanishing from the departments. This is not the employee’s fault so do not express your anger to those who can’t do anything about it; contact at the corporate level will be your best bet. Often, we can only do knife work, which means you can’t have exactly “X” pounds of some kind of steak or roast because we can only cut around the bones. Also, most of us don’t have formal butchers training so we can’t do any and every cut you’ve ever heard of. Don’t forget, this outsourcing of work does keep down prices for the consumer; but you do pay for it with the lack of choice. My father had a sign in his vehicle repair business: “Cheap, well done or fast. Pick two.” In my experience, you are lucky if you can pick two.

In a similar vein, ground meats of any kind are rarely ground *only* onsite. This is often due to food safety concerns, cross-contamination and tracking. Most ground beef comes in already ground once and with a tracking number that can help with recalls. It is ground again to make it “pretty” with those spaghetti like strands of meat that come from the grinder plate (the thing with the holes). We do not have a carcass in the back that we cut off a chunk and grind “fresh” or cut steaks from for that matter.   You might find this at a butcher shop but you will also pay for that personalized service. You won’t be paying less than $3 for a pound of 80/20 ground beef (80/20 is the percentage ratio of protein to fat in the burger).

Indeed, “fresh” is a confusing term for both employees and customers. Fresh could mean a just killed animal, right at the slaughterhouse. Those would be very tough. Fresh could also recently cut from a larger piece of meat (like an entire loin or rib, called in the trade primal or subprimals) or recently ground again from the bulk ground meat that the store gets.  What you think fresh is and what is possible at the department can widely vary.  The color of the meat has little to do with its “freshness”, depending only on how long the meat has been exposed to oxygen. Bright red means that the myoglobin of the meat has absorbed oxygen. If it is brownish, it could mean that the meat was quickly packed after cutting or grinding and had no time to absorb oxygen. Of course, being brown could also mean that it is decomposing, the enzymes in the meat breaking the proteins down.   

The whole “gluten free” product popularity is a bit aggravating for folks in the meat department. Pure meat does not contain gluten. The only way meat will have gluten around it or in it is if it is injected or marinated in something that contains gluten. Gluten is indeed a protein, but it is not in meat. If you want to claim that you are gluten sensitive or have celiac disease, familiarize yourself with what it entails, not just what you “heard”.

Prime grade beef is a grading by the USDA, not the store. It is a function of the cow’s age and how well the fat is distributed through the meat. It is also very very hard to get prime grass fed beef because it seems to require a grain diet to get that amount of intramuscular fat aka “marbling” in the animal. I personally find it too fatty for my tastes. Most of this beef is dry aged and sold to expensive restaurants. Dry aging is allowing the meat to sit in a dry cold environment where it loses moisture and the enzymes in the meat will break down the protein. In addition to being expensive because it is prime grade, it is also expensive since the meat loses water weight and some of it has to be removed during the process because it is too decomposed to be considered edible and appetizing. (If you’d like to know way way more information about beef grading, the USDA has a very involved video here. It does have dead animals, and insanely sharp knives being used, so be warned.)

On the topic of grass fed beef… Grass fed beef is limited to cows that get only grass, or hay or silage, all year around. Grass does not grow in temperate areas in the winter, so the farmer must hope that they have enough hay, etc. to get their critters through. On our farm, we fed grain often in the winter; it takes up less room than an equivalent nutritional amount of hay and silage. Much grass fed beef comes from areas of the world where the grass grows all year around. This makes it something that has to be shipped to many areas where that climate doesn’t exist. Here’s a review of grass fed beef and the industry from the Penn State University Extension service, if you are looking for more information about it.  It is a bit of a controversial subject.

Get a set of decent knives for your personal use.  You can’t imaging the number of people who say that they don’t have a sharp knife in the house, so can we cut up meat for them for free.  Be a tool user and make sure that they are sharp.  A dull knife is so much more dangerous than a sharp one.  Using a cut resistant glove on the hand not holding the knife also can help you feel more confident.   They won’t prevent every cut and poke but they really do help a lot.  You can get them online or at your local restaurant supply store.  For knives, I am perfectly happy with my Chicago Cutlery set with the full tangs.  Clean them, steel them, sharpen them, oil the wooden handles and block and they’ll last a very long time.

Ground beef with a very high protein to fat ratio, say 95% protein, will only make a “juicy” burger if you eat it barely cooked. If it is higher in fat, then you get the classic juicy *and* charred burger ( I personally won’t use anything less than 80/20 for burgers and other uses for ground beef). If you eat barely cooked burger, you have a higher chance of getting exposed to pathogens. You take a risk. You can reduce this risk by eating irradiated burger. This has been exposed to a radiation source, or zapped with electricity, to kill those pathogens. This does not make the meat radioactive. Incidentally, I have eaten irradiated burger and I cannot tell the difference between it and non-irradiated. I also can’t tell the difference between frozen burger and that which has not been frozen.   On the farm, we would get a animal slaughtered, cut and ground up and then frozen for all of families working on the farm.   We didn’t buy meat from a store for years.

Packaging can be damaged and can be flawed. Also, the plastic wrapped packs, if not vacuum sealed, are not to be long term storage. Neither is the butcher’s paper we use to wrap your purchase in. If you get blood or fluids on you, it’s not the end of the world. You see us all healthy and we touch it every day. Most stores have towels and sanitizer on hand. If you can’t find it, ask nicely at the counter.

No grocery store or supermarket has an infinite supply of product in some magical storeroom in the back.. We do run out of things. That is not the employee’s fault. Educated guesses on how much to order have to be made. To complicate this, there are often people who seem to think that they’ll never see a pack of meat again and purchase as if they were doomsday preppers. They take most, or all of what is in stock, and until the truck from the distribution center comes again, we are out.

What we have depends on a fragile web of farms, slaughterhouses, packers and distribution centers and shipping. A drought in the west will mean higher beef prices and a short supply. Farmers who need funds sending their cows to market early will mean less prime grade beef. Sick pigs will make pork rise in price. And bad weather anywhere will entirely screw up when the trucks can move product.

Nor do we have an infinite supply of staff time to make what you want when you think you want it. If you do have a big order you’d like to have, be kind and let the staff know that a week or two ahead of time. We can often have exactly what you want waiting for you if you just give us advanced warning. AKA, no sir we can’t have 300 pounds of burger for you in an hour and yes I am laughing at you because you asked for that.

We also don’t have every single possible type of meat available, no matter how big or fancy the store. Do not get upset with the counter employees for that. It is the law of supply and demand, if something isn’t selling, the store will stop carrying it. For example, if we don’t have caul fat, don’t get hissy with the counter employees and tell us that any “real” butcher shop would. Again, we aren’t a butcher shop.

If we don’t have what you wanted for dinner that night, we’re sorry about that and will offer alternatives. If you get angry at us, telling us that you don’t have *anything* for dinner since you can’t get your boneless skinless organic chicken thighs while standing in a store that has more meat than many people in the world have ever seen in their lifetime, we will just smile at you in pity.

There are some cuts that are very worthwhile and most people don’t know about them. A bit of research can make you a very happy carnivore.  A chuck eye is from what most folks know as a chuck roast. It’s the tenderest muscle in the group and is often very well marbled. Ask for them at the counter, often we’ll have them but won’t put them out because no one buys them because they don’t know what they are.

Some cuts are also not worthwhile at all and seem to only be popular because of nostalgia. A rump roast is bottom round, which is often tough because it has next to no intramuscular fat in it. It is indeed cheap and lean. Your mom or grandma may have cooked it, but take my advice and get a chuck roast instead.

A very common question I get is “What cut of meat should I get if I want “roast beef?” That’s a complex question. In my experience, there are two kinds of “roast beef”, the kind you can cut with a fork and the kind you can slice. If you want a falling apart fork tender roast beef with lots of gravy, then get a chuck roast. If you want something that slices, get a sirloin roast. As above, you can get various “round” roasts and steaks but they will be considerably tougher and less flavorful. The only thing I like a round for, specifically eye round, is for roasting it until it is just warm through, yes, very rare, and serving with copious amounts of chimichurri sauce.

In my opinion, “angus” meat isn’t worth the extra price.  Beef cows are various kinds, mostly determined by what color they are or how well they accept certain environmental conditions.  There are a few that have been specially bred to be extra fatty, like Wagyu/Kobe.  Hereford and Charolais were what we had when I was growing up. Then Angus became popular, so we started raising them.  I can’t tell the difference.

That’s it for now. Any questions you’d like to ask about the meat department, feel welcome to do so.

5 thoughts on “What the Boss Likes – Wisdom from the meat department

  1. Jewel Luebke and I worked as handymen in the meat department in the local Safeway back in 1967. She did all the wrapping of the meats, I did the chicken and fish preparation (with scarcely a blade) and the butcher hung out at the bandsaw and cutting table. Cheryl was quite buxom. One shift day I had heard it one too many times. “Robin, get 40 lbs. of boobs out of the freezer for Jewels .” My response was, “John, Jewels is already amply supplied.” A huge hunk of hamburger came flying by my face in response.


    1. Heh. 🙂 It seems that meat departments all have a rather incorrigible cast of characters in them. My crew is a bunch of people who are intelligent (mostly), profane, iconoclastic, and will do anything for their friends.


      1. Incorrigible indeed; throwing that hunk of hamburger was outta line. She must have later thought I complemented her, asking me out on a date. I doubted her true motives and declined graciously.


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