Published November 27, 2016
If you’re like most Americans, you most likely buy your meat at the supermarket. Be it raw chicken and steaks from the butcher case or cold cuts from the deli counter, we tend to not give much thought to the meat we buy beyond whether it’s fresh and how much it costs. But you might want to think twice before buying your next Styrofoam-and-cellophane-wrapped chicken breast, because what we’re about to tell you may have you buying all your meat at the organic butcher shop from now on.
The vast majority of meat purchased at supermarkets comes from livestock that has been raised on what are called Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), also known as “factory farms.”
There are about 257,000 CAFOs in the United States, and the EPA defines them as "a production process that concentrates large numbers of animals in relatively small and confined places, and that substitutes structures and equipment (for feeding, temperature controls, and manure management) for land and labor."
Any animal that’s forced to live in such cramped quarters isn’t going to be especially healthy, so they’re given antibiotics, hormones, de-worming medication, growth-promoting drugs, and other medicines that help them reach their slaughter weight quickly and without getting too sick. According to a recent USDA Inspector General Report, beef sold to the public was found to be contaminated with 211 different drug residues.
Thankfully, several companies are producing high-quality raw meat for purchase at grocery stores these days, so you're not completely out of luck if there are no good butcher shops around. Niman Ranch, Laura’s Lean Beef, and D’Artagnan products, for example, are being made available in an increasing number of grocery stores, and they’re all reputable; the meat we’re discussing here is sold in non-branded, cellophane-wrapped packages and is often far less expensive than the name-brand meat.
So read on to learn surprising things about the industrial meat that’s stocking the shelves at your local supermarket. It’s not going to be pretty, but there are some harsh truths about the massive industry that’s putting cheap, low-quality meat on your dinner table that are important to know, especially because it may be putting your health at risk (all those antibiotics don’t just disappear when the meat is cooked!). It’s smart to be an informed consumer, especially when the facts are as frightening as these.
Expiration Dates on Meat Packaging Are Generally Meaningless
We hate to break it to you, but expiration dates really don’t mean much. Sure, Cheez-Its will go stale and milk will go bad a certain number of weeks after packaging, but supermarket meat departments, where they do their own labeling, are generally left up to their own devices (30 states don’t regulate date labeling at all). This means that if an item is set to expire and it still looks okay, supermarkets are allowed to put a new label on, pushing the expiration date back by days or even more than a week. We suggest checking to see when the food first hit the shelf, if possible, or buying meat from a trusted butcher.
Ground Beef Is Usually From Retired Dairy or Breeding Cows
Most of the beef we eat comes from cows (either steers or cows that are raised for meat rather than milk) that are between two and three years old. Young beef tends to be more tender and marbled, and is used almost exclusively for steaks. Because it doesn’t matter whether ground beef is tender or marbled, most supermarket ground beef is made from retired dairy or breeding cows, which are generally slaughtered at between six and 8 years of age, along with trimmings left over after younger cows are butchered.
You Should Look for a USDA Shield on the Packaging
There are eight grades of meat: prime, choice, select, standard, commercial, utility, cutter, and canner. The more marbling in the meat, the better the grade. Choice and select are the grades most commonly found in supermarkets, but in order to be graded, the meat needs to be inspected by the USDA. Look for the USDA shield, and you’ll know that it’s been inspected.
Contaminated Chicken and Turkey Sickens 200,000 Americans Yearly with Salmonella
While many countries have protections against salmonella in place at chicken farms and hatcheries, there are no such protections in the U.S., where testing is only carried out on a limited basis at the slaughterhouse. Here, it’s simply accepted that chicken will have potentially fatal bacteria on it; according to federal data, about 25 percent of raw chicken pieces contain salmonella. Because the requirements are so lax, about 200,000 Americans are sickened with salmonella from poultry annually. Thankfully, the USDA has ramped up its testing for salmonella on poultry.
A New Law Makes It Legal for Supermarket Meat to Not Be Labeled with the Country of Origin
Retailers and producers are no longer required to identify where an animal was raised, slaughtered, or processed. Canada and Mexico, two important trade partners, argued that laws mandating country of origin labeling were discouraging Americans from buying meat that comes from outside the U.S., and Congress caved to them, much to the chagrin of those who support transparency in the food industry. Advocates claim this this act has no bearing on food safety.
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