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Posts from the ‘Food Safety’ Category

Did You Know: There Is Such A Thing As Purple Meat?

dark-cut-scotch-filletIt’s probably likely that if you solely buy meat from the grocery store, you didn’t know there was such as thing as purple meat. Yes, purple meat. Or as we call it in the meat industry, dark cutting beef. Dark cutting beef carcasses have a purplish-black color rather than a bright red color we are all used to. Often times, dark cutting beef may resemble meat that has been vacuum packaged, but vacuum packaged meat will brighten back up (or bloom) after the package has been opened and it has been exposed to oxygen. (see brown meat post for the science behind this). It is estimated that 1-2% of beef carcasses slaughtered end up dark cutting beef.

But how does this happen?

In the time between slaughter and chilling the carcass, a chemical reaction known as glycolysis occurs in the muscle tissue. This reaction converts glycogen (basically the carbohydrates in the muscle) into lactic acid. This lactic acid causes the pH of the meat to decline from the neutral value of somewhere around 7.2 found in the live animal. This drop in pH is what turns meat red. Good quality beef has a final pH value of close to 5.5. As the pH value of the beef rises above 5.8, both tenderness and shelf life of the meat is adversely affected. Dark cutting beef is beef that has a pH level of 6.0 and higher. Besides being unappealing in appearance, dark cutting beef also tends to have the following characteristics:

  • dry texture due to a high water holding capacity
  • reduced shelf life due to higher pH and more moisture bacteria can grow more rapidly
  • a sticky texture

DSCN3222-1024x680Dark cutting beef is triggered by high stress in an animal before slaughter. An adrenaline release or strenuous muscle activity before processing means that the supply of glycogen will be depleted, the chemical reaction will not occur, and the meat will remain dark instead of turning red. Stress could be from a variety of factors anything from transportation of the animals, mishandling, mixing of unfamiliar cattle, and even changing weather conditions.

Dark cutting beef is not something new, feedlots and packing plants have known these factors for many years and take great care to avoid dark cutters. It’s one of the reasons why I never understand animal rights organizations try to make the argument that all animals are stressed out in slaughterhouses. If this were the case, the instance of dark cutters would be off the charts and the packing plants would be bleeding money. It is estimated by the National Beef Quality Audit that dark cutters cost the beef industry $5.00 for every animal slaughtered. $5.00 doesn’t seem like much but when you think about the fact that in 2012, USDA reported 33 million head of cattle being slaughtered with 98.4 percent of that total being done under federal inspection. That’s quite a bit of money being lost annually due to dark cutters. It has been estimated that Cargill alone loses a whopping $300 million dollars annually due to dark cutters. The meat from dark cutting beef is usually sold for a minimum of 10% less than it’s normal retail value because it is considered unappealing to the retail market. Customers want to purchase red meat, not purple meat.

How can we avoid dark cutting beef?

Professionals in animal handling like Temple Grandin have worked very closely with operations of all sizes, helping packing houses and slaughterhouses minimize and hopefully eliminate stress for the animals. Temple Grandin has outlined several steps for loading and unloading, restaining, and even how to deal with an excitable animal. Many of these methods are not only used in slaughterhouses, but are also used in feedlots and by individual ranchers working cattle too.

Image courtesy Temple Grandin

Image courtesy Temple Grandin

  • Solid sides or barriers around the cattle to prevent them from seeing people deep inside their flight zones. This is especially important for wild or excitable cattle
  •  To prevent lunging at the headgate, the bovine’s view of an escape pathway must be blocked until it is fully restrained.
  • Provide non-slip flooring for all species of animals.
  • Slow steady motion of a restraint device is calming, while sudden jerky motion excite.
  • The entrance of the restraint device must be well lighted, however, lamps must not glare into the eyes of approaching animals. All species must be able to see a place to go.
  • Livestock will remain calmer if they can see other animals within touching distance.
  • Engineer equipment to minimize noise. High pitched noise is more disturbing to livestock than a low pitched rumble.

It is fairly easy to spot cattle that are stressed, often times this is due to fear or uncertainty. Signs of stress in cattle are typically vocalization (lots of moo-ing or bellowing), eyes wide open with head high, panting, lots of defecating. Slaughterhouses as well as feedlots and other operations carefully monitor animals for this kind of behaviour and do their best to prevent it from happening.

So what happens to dark cutting beef?

Appearance is dark cutting beef’s number one repellant when it comes to the retail market. Since retailers won’t purchase dark cutting beef due to the fact that it won’t sell, most of dark cutting beef ends up in the food service industry side in places where customers don’t see the raw product but instead enjoy the cooked product. Although dark cutters can cause meat to become dry and sticky and sometimes tough, there is really no palatability problem with dark cutting beef. And it certainly makes perfectly fine hamburger!

Professionals in the meat science industry have been working towards enhancing and further utilizing dark cutting beef to essentially improve the value. One of the problems in dark cutters when it comes to whole muscle cuts is that even after it’s been cooked, dark cutting beef still retains its dark color. Almost as if the meat hadn’t been cooked at all. This is a huge turnoff for retail as well as food service professionals. Dr. Jason Apple from the University of Arkansas found that through trials done on dark cutting beef enhanced with lactic acid (0.25-1% lactic acid), they could change pH which results in a dark cutting beef becoming nearly impossible to tell the difference between a beef grading somewhere around low choice both in fresh and cooked beef. If you are interested in the specifics, the video below is pretty neat.

The process of dark cutting beef occurs can happen in other species of animals like sheep and pork, it’s not strictly limited to beef. The chemical process is just a little different in other species, but the end result is the same. It’s a lose-lose for everyone when you have a dark cutting animals come through the packing plant. By understanding animal behavior and pairing that with proper animal handling techniques, slaughterhouses can avoid purple meat and we all can enjoy that bright red meat we all know and love.


For more information on dark cutting beef, visit these resources:

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The Real Story Behind Chicken Nuggets…

Well that “pink slime” controversy is rearing it’s ugly head again… But this time it isn’t about the beef. The suspect in question? Chicken. I am sure many of us remember this image of that “pink” substance many people were trying to say was lean finely textured beef.


Plain and simple, this is a meat emulsion. Not pink slime.

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Nitrites: What’s the REAL Story?

Nitrites are something that have been in the news off and on since the 1980’s. One news story tells you they cause cancer, the next one tells you the health benefits of nitrites. There have even been billboards trying to prey on the fear that hot dogs are just as bad as smoking cigarettes. hot-dog-billboard-cancer-project-300x169Some products claim to be “nitrite free” but are they really nitrite free…? There’s so much information out there, what’s the real story? Before we get down to the real story, let’s cover what a nitrite is and how it ended up in our beloved cured meats like hot dogs and bacon.  Read more

What We Want You to Know About the Meat Industry

As a business who’s been in the meat industry and seen many different sides of the industry, we’d like consumers to know that you can find good meat no matter where you go. Don’t feel like you’ve got to spend ridiculous amounts of money to get the best meat out there just because your neighbors do, or your friends do. Buying meat doesn’t have to be keeping up with the Jones. Good meat doesn’t have to be beef that was fed rice wine or even massaged their entire life. Feed and how an animal is raised can change taste, texture, and marbling (intramuscular fat), but it doesn’t change the fact that all are striving for quality. And quality can be found even at your big box store. Read more

How Do I Know When My Pork Chops Are Cooked?

For a long time as a child, I didn’t like pork… I know, the daughter of a butcher not liking pork it’s like a sin. Why didn’t I like pork? Well my mom usually over cooked it. It was dry, it was tough, and it was tasteless. She cooked it like her mother had always cooked it for her. Then one day, the butcher man himself, cooked us up some pork chops. Like a typical child, I turned my nose up at it but my dad didn’t give up until I tried it. His pork chops were juicy, they were flavorful, and they were delicious. Now pork has become a regular staple in my weekly meal plan. So what did Dad do that Mom didn’t…? He didn’t overcook the pork, he cooked it the way it should be.  Read more

Reporter Goes Undercover as USDA Meat Inspector

Last week, I came across this story put out by Harper Magazine by a reporter (Ted Conover) who was tasked with becoming a USDA inspector for the meat processing company, Cargill in small town rural Nebraska. Upon reading it, I came out with mixed feelings. My first feelings were that overall, it wasn’t what I thought it was going to be. I assumed it would be that classic “bashing large agribusiness”  or “uncovering the horrors of the modern slaughterhouse” but instead Conover re-enforces the necessity USDA meat inspectors play to our meat system today. Read more

A Look Inside Glass Walls of a Slaughterhouse… A Pork Plant

A while back I shared a video looking inside the walls of a beef slaughter plant. If you missed it, I highly suggest you check out that post! In the post I said,

It’s no secret that customers of the meat industry have been searching for transparency within the industry for a while now. Every time an undercover video comes out or things like Lean Finely Textured Beef get “exposed”, people begin to scramble looking for answers. Where do they go to look for answers..? Their friends, their family, those people that they trust to provide them with the truth. I am sure that most people don’t go looking to American Meat Institute (AMI)  for answers. But regardless of where you go, AMI decided to finally join in the conversation of animal slaughter and began work on a video looking inside a slaughterhouse. And I am so thrilled that they’ve decided to join in this discussion because well, if I didn’t have the experiences I’ve had in my lifetime, known the many farmers and ranchers I do, as well as seen first hand many an animal slaughtered at large and small processors alike, I too would want to take up a vegetarian and vegan diet too! Those undercover videos put out by animal rights/animal welfare groups are hard to watch, they are very graphic, and quite frankly they aren’t how I want my industry to be portrayed. Read more

Finding Out Where Your Meat Comes From…

Today now more than ever customers and consumers are looking to find out WHERE their food comes from. But not just in a general sense, they want to know details. Locations, companies, who is handling their food and what they are doing. With a push towards more and more labeling of origin, I wonder how many people know there is already a system in place that allows you to find the origins of your federally inspected meat…?

2013-04-29_001It’s called an establishment number and any meat under federal inspection that is labeled for resale will bear this seal. Meat, Poultry, and Eggs are required by law to contain this seal. This system has it’s origins in the Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1906. What this system allows is not only for customers and consumers to look up who is producing their food, but also allows USDA to track back the source of a particular item in the event of a recall. By knowing this establishment number, they can pin point where a product came from and if possible what other products may need to be recalled. But this system is not just for finished products, carcasses are also stamped with establishment numbers. So when we order in carcass animals to either cut up or receive animals that have been slaughtered under federal inspection by another business, all of the carcasses have been stamped with this seal as well. It looks something  like the image to the left.

2013-04-29_002Even our products that we have made on the premises, such as smoked sausages, jerky, tri-tips, etc. are required to contain a seal with our establishment number on the package. Instead of saying U.S. Inspected and Passed by the Dept. of Ag, our seal says California Inspected and Passed by the Department of Agriculture because we are under state inspection, not federal inspection. If you are curious about the difference between the two, you can find out more in this  post talking about local meat.

So how do you find these establishment numbers and information…? Well you take a visit to the USDA website. Here they have a database of establishment numbers by either numeral order or alphabetically by establishment name. For example, let’s say we want to find out where one of the products featured above comes from. All we have to do is look them up in the database. The beef shown on the left came from establishment 245L which the database tells us is Tyson Fresh Meats out of Lexington, NE.

Photo Apr 29, 10 15 02 AMBut this system really isn’t feasible while you are standing in the grocery store aisle trying to make decisions on what to buy. But thanks to a student at Chicago’s DePaul University, he has allowed this information to go mobile. He has designed a mobile app for the iphone which allows anyone to ” to search the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) product establishment number. The new app offers instant access to a product’s manufacturer and provides further information about that company. In addition to identifying the company, the app offers its address, telephone number and web address.”

“The app was designed to be customized for every individual. The Establishment Number Finder App allows users to save any establishment number previously searched, as well as an option to quickly note information regarding the product. Users may also take of picture of the product which will automatically appear along with any additional company information that can be easily saved and stored.” The App can be found in the AppStore by searching for Est. Finder App.

We are excited to see if this app takes off and gains popularity amongst customers and consumers and what they have to say about knowing exactly where their food comes from! How many of you knew how/where establishment numbers? It goes to show you that just because it’s on a label, it doesn’t necessarily mean the public will know what it means or how to utilize the information. Will you be downloading and trying out this app?

For more information about the App, check out this news article. And for more information about establishment numbers and the USDA directory, check out their website.

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The Challenges of Local Meat

We get quite a few people coming in on a weekly basis asking if we sell local meat. And the answer to that question is NO. But is it by choice? Absolutely not. You would think that it would be as simple as finding cattle, hogs, or sheep for us to buy, slaughter, and cut up to put into our meat case. But it isn’t that simple. Why not? There are a few limiting factors as to why it’s not as black and white as it seems. Read more

Are There Hormones in Meat!?

The simple to that question is well, yes. There are hormones in everything… In you, in me, in animals, even in vegetables. That’s just a fact of life. Are hormones added to the animals before they are killed for meat..? Well the answer to that question is basically yes.. Is there a need to be concerned..? Absolutely not.

First of all, hormone use in livestock production only occurs in beef cattle not pork or chicken. And in fact USDA has outlawed hormone use in both pork & poultry production. There are many reasons for this ranging from the chickens and hogs are much more efficient at converting feed than cattle, to the time required to inject each and every chicken is not worth the end result. Bottom line is: if you’re spending more money on that label with the chicken breast that says “hormone free”, sorry to say it, but you’re wasting your money. Hormone use in cattle is not something new to production.  Cattle have been receiving hormone injections for well over 50 years and in fact it is well regulated, monitored carefully, & proven safe. Currently, over 90 percent of the cattle fed in the U.S. receive a hormone implant during growth and this usually occurs as the animal enters the feedlot. The effect of the hormone implant will have worn off well before the animal is shipped to market, basically meaning that the effectiveness of the hormone implant will have terminated well before the animal is slaughtered.  Therefore, residues and/or traces of this hormone implant is not an issue. Read more