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. Continue reading “What the Boss Likes – Wisdom from the meat department”