From the days when the first carnivorous cave dwellers seared animals over flames, meat has figured prominently in our culture. Few foods have been so admired, abhorred, suspected or sought after.
Consider meat's checkered career:
In 1906 Upton Sinclair shook up the meat industry with his shocking accounts of the Chicago stockyards in "The Jungle."
In recent years, there have been several occurrences of illness resulting from contaminated meat that had entered the marketplace, including the 1984 Southern California salmonella outbreak from local cattle that caused two deaths and 300 cases of food poisoning.
Warnings that red meat is high in saturated fats, which boost the body's supply of cholesterol, have taken a big bite out of the beef industry. Americans are now consuming 69.2 pounds per person annually, down from 116 pounds per person in 1972.
Consumer pressure over the years, particularly in the 1960s, has resulted in strict government standards regulating the quality of the meat that is sold. These guidelines, created under the 1969 Wholesome Meat Act, call for thorough government inspections of all slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants.
What is sold in the markets must meet standards set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service.
"Inspectors are required to be in every slaughterhouse and inspect every animal," said Jack Venus, deputy director of evaluation and enforcement for the compliance program of the Food Safety and Inspection Service. Venus says that while the USDA circle stamp must go on every animal inspected, it usually can't be seen by the consumer after the meat is cut up.
The stamp is a government guarantee that the meat is "wholesome and unadulterated and not misbranded," Venus said. In other words, a store can't label horse meat as beef or ground turkey as chopped steak.
Some meat is given a descriptive grade by USDA officials. This is a voluntary marketing and retail device provided by the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service for a fee that is paid by packinghouses as a service for grocery stores. Most grocery stores include government grades in their advertising and meat wrappers. Some (Stater Bros., for instance) proudly proclaim their meat "government inspected," as though some meat was not.
Of beef's eight grades (lamb and veal have similar grades), Choice and Select are the ones most often found in grocery stores. Prime beef, which is considered the tastiest, has become increasingly scarce at supermarkets, according to Eugene Martin, head of the meat-grading division of the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service. This is because fewer high-fat cattle are being raised, and fewer consumers want meat with that much fat. Restaurants and hotels usually buy up the majority of Prime, which represents only about 2% to 3% of all cattle graded in this country, Martin said.
The last five grades--Standard, Commercial, Utility, Cutter and Canner--are of lower quality and usually end up in processed foods such as sausage, cold cuts and frozen dinners. Martin says that two-thirds of all the cattle sent to the slaughterhouse are graded Prime or Choice. The rest of the meat is inspected but not graded, although the majority of this beef would be labeled Select if it was graded.
The grades reflect the meat's palatability, Martin says. The higher grades have more marbling (interior fat) and are usually more tender, tastier and juicier than lower grades. They also cost more. In the last few years, the leaner grades have become more popular with buyers. In fact, last year consumer groups successfully petitioned the government to change the name of USDA Good meat to USDA Select to improve the image of lean beef and to help promote the grade to shoppers.
Of the county's biggest grocery store chains, Vons, Alpha Beta and Lucky Stores carry USDA Choice; Alpha Beta and Lucky also carry Select. Albertson's and Ralphs carry their own labels.
Gary Michael, vice chairman of Albertson's, says his store's "Supreme" meat is a lean product that does not carry a government grade.
Al Marasca, executive vice president of marketing for Ralphs, says the market's "Golden Premium" beef is graded USDA Select, but the company chose not to put that information on the label.
"We have gone to a less-fat beef as the customers' interest has gone that way," he said.
Shoppers buy most meat prepackaged: cut, prepared and portioned. Old-fashioned butchers and their cutting techniques are becoming scarce, and although most of the large chains will cut from larger pieces they have on hand, some requests are turned down. Requests to have a leg of lamb or breast of turkey freshly ground may be refused because the piece of meat is too small for the grinder. Most of the large chains, however, will butterfly a leg of lamb or reduce the size of prepackaged meats.