About this blog...

Food has been an important part of my life for as long as I can remember. Food and the festivities surrounding its arrival to the table has always been a focal point in our family. For many years I have been amassing the cookbooks, recipe cards, cooking journals, diaries, manuscripts and clipping files of our once extensive family.

Personally, I’ve been professionally involved with food for over 40 years in numerous and varied culinary capacities across the country so I also have the collected stories, as well as current and on-going food-related experiences from my own life I’d like to share.

My idea has long been that someday I would bring all of this marvelous raw material together into a culinary journey through our family’s heritage. This journal is the beginnings of that journey.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Some Thoughts on Meat and Spoilage

A couple of days ago I was down getting something out of one of our big chest freezers and caught a whiff of something "off".  A few minutes of sniffing around the room found the source: a 2 lb package of ground lamb that had somehow fallen down beside the freezer, onto of a case of paper towels.  It was right in front of the fan vent for the freezer (where all the hot air is expelled) and the package was limp and warm to the touch.  Oof-dah!
I know exactly when the meat got lost... February 5th, 10 full days previous to my finding it. We'd ground it on the 2nd, got it packaged and sent to the freezer on the 5th.  I'm sure that's when it must have fallen out of the bus tub in which we were toting it and slid down beside the freezer.
Being a frugal guy (to a fault sometimes, I suppose), I didn't want to just throw the meat away and took it to the kitchen to cook up for the dogs.  To my surprise, upon opening it,  the meat looked fine.  It was bright red and juicy-looking without any discoloring or slime.  Girding myself, I took a whiff.  It smelled good!  The "off" smell I'd caught in the store room was that sour smell of the blood that had leaked out of the package.  Once the soggy butcher wrap was removed, the meat itself actually smelled fine.
As I cooked the lamb in a saut√© pan, my mouth actually watering from the aroma.  Visions of moussaka danced in my head and I was tempted to season it up and make lunch.  "Tempted", yes  but while I may be crazy, I'm but not that stupid.  I finished cooking it well-done and tossed it out for the dogs who devoured it in seconds.
But it got me thinking.  How many times, in the years before we began growing and processing almost all our own food, had we purchased meat from a grocery store, dutifully kept it refrigerated at the recommended 38*F, only to fine it slimy, green and putrid in a few days?
According to USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service guidelines for storing meat in the refrigerator...
  • Raw ground meats, all poultry, seafood, and variety meats: Refrigerate 1 to 2 days.
  • Raw roasts, steaks, and chops (beef, veal, lamb, and pork):  Refrigerate 3 to 5 days.
  • Cooked meat, poultry, and seafood: Store in the refrigerator 3 to 4 days.

Two days? At 38*F? How then did my ground lamb survive a week and a half at 80-90*F?  Here are some random thoughts on this, in no particular order...
1.  It didn't actually "survive".  Just because it smelled and looked great, doesn't mean that it  didn't have some significant harmful bacterial growth.  Maybe I should have eaten just a bit to test this theory?  Too late to know now.
2.  The meat we buy in the store isn't as young as it seems.  Even if it was just ground that very day, the animal almost certainly wasn't just slaughtered.  Even assuming that the carcass wasn't "aged" (virtually no consumer-quality meat is any more), it still took several days, maybe as long as a week, for it to get butchered, packaged, shipped to the distributor, re-shipped to the grocery store, and processed by the meat department.  So the USDA's 1-2 day storage guideline is just the tail end of a much longer production timeline.
On the other hand, my ground lamb wasn't just slaughtered either.  We killed the sheep last summer and hung the carcasses for 5 days at 40*F before butchering them.  The butchering had taken a couple of days to do and to get the meat packaged and to the freezer.  I'd pulled the meat for grinding out of the freezer about 5 days before actually doing the grinding and allowed it to thaw slowly in a 38*F fridge (it was still "hard-chilled" when I ground it), and then, of course there were a few days of grinding/packaging here too.
So time alone doesn't seem to be the factor.
3.  Sanitation.  As clean and as careful as we are with our slaughtering and  butchering projects, I'd like to believe that when it's done industrially, they can do it better.
I slaughter outdoors and usually hang the carcasses in an open shed while I skin and gut the animal, moving it to the kitchen on a lined pallet with our forklift. 

Once inside, our sanitation standards are as high as anyone's (we are a licensed dairy, inspected by half a dozen local, state and federal agencies) but meat processing is only an off-season sideline for us.  One would think that full-time, high volume slaughter facilities would be better equipped with tighter controls on all aspects of their processing.  Perhaps this is not the case or, possibly the animals themselves are the problem.
4.  The Animals/ The System.  The few animals we slaughter and butcher here are quite different than those Confined Animal Feed Operations (CAFO) produce.
CAFO meat (nearly all the meat we see in stores) comes from animals who have been dry-lotted (penned in close confinement) for as much as the last couple of years of their lives.  They are fed a medicated, predominantly grain diet in questionable sanitary environments, transported long distances under difficult conditions, and killed and processed at an incredible rate.  As an example, there is a hog slaughter facility in North Carolina that employs about 5000 workers and which is capable of processing 32,000 (thirty-two thousand!) animals PER DAY.   This high-speed, assembly-line approach is to thank for helping keep food prices in the USA some of the lowest in the world, and allows us to efficiently feed more people with fewer farmers and ranchers and processors than anywhere else.  Unfortunately it is not the best system for the animals nor for a healthy, safe and sustainable food supply. 
The industry, in addressing health and safety concerns, has opted to attack the symptoms of the problem rather than the root causes.  Our commercial meat supply animals are prophylactically treated with broad-spectrum antibiotics to help prevent diseases caused by their unnatural environments and diets.  The meat is bathed in UV lighting, and treated with ammonia in an attempt to kill dangerous pathogens  on the meat (which should not be there in the first place) before they make people sick.  We are no longer allowed to buy many of the delightful "variety meats", like blood, brains and certain internal organs from most of the animals slaughtered because they have been determined  to be possible sources of disease (like "mad cow disease" - a disease primarily propagated by feeding infected animal byproducts back to normally herbaceous animals) - at the very least, this is a criminal waste.  We are told to always cook our meat well-done as if we should accept and expect our food to be contaminated when we buy it.
Our Meat
We like to say that the animals who supply our meat have "just one bad day in their whole lives". They are pasture-raised until the day they die, usually free-range on our 280 acres of high desert rangeland (though sometimes from a neighbor's irrigated fields).  
We have never given a single one any antibiotics.  They are offered a little bit of grain (a few pounds per day) during the last few weeks of their lives to help lay down a bit of extra fat and even that is withheld for the last 48 hours (this helps flush their systems of many of the bad microorganisms responsible for tainted meat commercially).   The ones we don't slaughter here are transported, by us in our little stock trailer, about 10 miles to a family-run USDA-inspected facility in town that processes about 20 animals a WEEK.
This system, while inherently inefficient, by comparison to industrial standards, certainly has the advantage from an animal welfare perspective and, I would think, from most other perspectives as well except for cost and speed.  As a bonus, I have no compunction about eating bloody rare steaks and burgers, medium rare liver or pink-on-the-bone pork or chicken from our own animals.  AND, I get to use all the odd bits an pieces that come from a carcass as I wish.
In Closing
I sort-of got off the main point there for a bit.  Or did I?  I suspect that my ground lamb didn't rot while sitting for 10 days at a very warm room temperature because of a combination of all these variables.  The meat was just plain healthier when it got misplaced, having come from healthier animals, and healthier environments and as such, was a poorer medium for growing the organisms that cause decay.  That's my  story and I'm sticking to it.  Other thoughts are welcome.

1 comment:

  1. Amen David! I completely agree that the factory farmed meats we get in the large chain grocery stores, are not the quality of the animals we raise and eat.