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Hormones in Beef: Part Three of Three

23 Mar

Hi. I’m not Cole. I’m Karen Coshof.  I co-wrote “The Gourmet Butcher’s Guide to Meat” with Cole. The book’s discussion about hormones in beef was part of my contribution to the project.  Here’s  the third and final part of the discussion (with a gentle conclusion)…


Help, I’m Eating Hormones!

Since estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone are naturally produced by the bodies of animals, including people and cattle, should you be worried about additional exposure via cattle ear implants? I say no, and here’s why.

Let’s take a look at estrogen. The normal production of human estrogen per day is about 4,000 nanograms (1 nanogram = 1 billionth gram; 1 gram = 1/454th pound) in boys, a little higher in girls, about 100,000 to 150,000 nanograms in men, from 5 to 15 million nanograms in nonpregnant women, and from 4 to 64 million nanograms (or more) in pregnant women.

A 6-ounce serving of beef from a beef animal that has not been implanted contains about 2.6 nanograms; the same serving from an animal that has been implanted will contain about 3.8 nanograms of estrogen. Exact amounts will vary, but remain around these mean numbers.

Looking at some other foods:


8 fluid ounces (one glass) of milk = about 30 ng of estrogen

300 peas = about 330 ng estrogen

3 ounces of cabbage = about 2,000 ng


3 ounces of soybean oil = about 1,680,000 ng
(you read that right!)


And medications: One human birth control pill contains the same amount of estrogen as 105,000 pounds of beef from implanted steers.

So maybe we’re all getting a little too worked up about hormones in beef… (just saying)… 

HORMONES IN BEEF: part two of three (from my book)

16 Mar

Are Hormone Implants Safe? Part 1: The Politics

There are as many opinions about the safety of beef from implanted cattle as there are people.

In the late 1980s, the European Union banned the import of all hormone-treated meat from Canada and the United States, citing dangers to human health. This suggests that some sort of hormone-related risk from US beef caused the European community to press for the beef ban.

Let’s shed a little more light on the issue. The EU ban was triggered by an early growth promotant called DES (diethylstilbestrol), one of the first hormones used in feedlots. When DES was proven to cause cancer, the United States banned it in chicken and lamb production in 1959 and in all cattle production in 1979.

The European concern was triggered later—in the 1980s—when DES was detected in baby food made with veal. The baby food was made in France from French cows treated with DES, and thus had nothing to do with the United States. The resulting uproar led several European countries to ban the use of all hormones in cattle, which effectively banned most North American beef.

The dispute over the use of hormones in cattle is long running. The United States and Canadian governments maintain that the hormones being used in meat production today are safe. The European Union claims they are not. So why is this issue such a hot political potato?

Many economists and scientists believe that the EU ban was deliberately protectionist, and that beef was singled out because Europe has historically depended on beef from other countries—particularly the United States and Brazil. Why? Because there’s not much good grazing pasture in Europe. To protect the “inefficient” beef markets of the EU, the ban was created and received generous support from European consumers despite the lack of conclusive evidence.

Arbitrating the matter is the World Trade Organization (WTO), which rules on international trade between nations. The process by which rulings are arrived at is complex, involving hearings from both sides of the issue, expert/scientific testimony, drafting of an interim report, review, a final report, and ultimately a ruling, which becomes international law. If one side breaks the terms of the agreement, the penalty generally involves some sort of trade sanction.

In 1997, the World Trade Organization sided with the United States and Canada, saying that the EU’s health claims weren’t scientifically justified, and that the hormones used were unlikely to pose a hazard to human health, if good animal husbandry was practiced. However, the ruling still stands.

To help alleviate the situation (which was hurting both North America and Europe), in early 2012 the European Union offered concessions to partially defuse this 20-year trade war. The deal allowed the EU to retain its ban on imports of hormone-treated beef in return for an increase in its import quota for non-hormone-treated beef from the United States and Canada. In return, the US and Canada lifted import tariffs on a range of European farm produce like cheeses, chocolate, truffles, and other specialty products.

Are Hormone Implants Safe? Part 2: The Science

Science, like opinion, changes. But opinion is subjective and science, ideally, is objective. It’s just that as new information or findings emerge, they are incorporated into scientific research, and so what we know today is colored by and rests upon what we knew yesterday.

So for every report that concludes that the use of hormones in beef production poses a threat to children, another report points out that our bodies continually make the exact same hormones that the EU nations have banned in meat, and that we eat eggs and butter, which contain the same hormones in much higher concentrations than in beef.

An experiment by Iowa State University found that growth-promoting hormones decrease the land required to produce a pound of beef by two-thirds, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions nearly 40 percent per pound of beef compared with cattle never implanted with hormones. That seems like a big check in the positive column for hormone use.

However, other studies have focused on the negative environmental impacts of hormone residues in cattle manure. When manure from feedlots runs off into the surrounding environment, these hormones can contaminate surface water and groundwater. Multiple studies have shown that children are particularly sensitive to these kinds of hormones, even at very tiny levels. Even the USDA has commented on the danger of hormone residues flushed into groundwater. But since cattle produce hormones naturally, this may be more of an issue of manure management than implant residues—it’s very difficult to isolate which hormone residues are the result of implants and which are not.

I’m not a scientist. I’m a butcher. All I can do is try to present the most factually accurate information out there. One expert I spoke with is Marcia Herman-Giddens, adjunct professor at the University of North Carolina School of Public Health, Chapel Hill. In the late 1990s, she was the lead author of a seminal study on early puberty in girls, in which she expressed her concern about the effect of hormones and other endocrine-affecting chemicals in our environment. Herman-Giddens told me this:

When I wrote that study, there was very little data on hormone implants in cattle, although the doses were not inconsequential. To me, the use of hormone implants is still an open question, and a complex one. Effects, if any, could depend on the amount of meat consumed, interactions with other substances, and possible cumulative effects of similar exposures. I believe the reasons for early puberty involve a multiplicity of causes.

My generation did not grow up in a chemical-infused world. Now it’s all around us . . . in plastics like BPA, in herbicides and pesticides, even in dental sealants on children’s teeth. We are living in a sea of endocrine-disrupting chemicals. So it’s only natural that, depending on lifestyle, some people will encounter more exposure than others. It’s not just one thing—it’s cumulative.

In my opinion, the use of hormones to stimulate cattle growth is still a significant issue for the public. I believe that what’s needed is open, independently funded research to avoid public perception that the way the beef industry is framing this issue suggests that there’s something to hide. So for me, the jury’s still out.

In a 2009 report written for the Canadian Institute for Environmental Law and Policy, analyst Susan Holtz noted the dramatic increase in drugs used annually in Canadian animal husbandry—particularly in intensive (read: feedlot) operations. She pointed out that much support for the EU ban on growth promotants had to do with European countries’ history of embracing traditional values of livestock raising, as well as support for local and artisanal food and the heritage value of agricultural landscapes. In a phone call, she told us that while the use of hormone implants may be safe, she is very concerned about the effect of antibiotic use (more about this below).

And to conclude: The assessment that administering hormones to beef cattle is a safe practice has been endorsed by the Food and Drug Administration of the United States, Health Canada, the Codex Alimentarius Committee of the World Trade Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the World Health Organization, and the European Agriculture Commission

HORMONES IN BEEF: part one of three (exerpted from my book)

8 Mar

One of the flashpoints in any discussion of beef consumption is the use of hormones; or more specifically, growth hormones. Exactly what are they and why are they used?  And more to the point, are they as dangerous as some people claim?

Language is an interesting thing. You can use words to create emotional responses. Like “hormone-free” beef. There’s no such thing. It’s impossible.

Why? Because all animals—like all human beings—produce natural hormones in their metabolisms. In fact, every multicellular critter (cattle, people, dogs, birds, vegetables, whatever) creates its own natural hormones. If you’re worried about hormones in beef, what you need to look for is are the terms no added hormones or no hormones administered.

What exactly is a hormone? It’s a chemical released in one part of your body that affects another part. Hormones like estradiol, progesterone, and testosterone (aha, those “low T” ads) are naturally present in beef, and also in pork, poultry, milk, eggs and fish. But guess what? Plant foods like potatoes and wheat contain significant levels of progesterone, and some oils and plants also contain testosterone. Milk products provide about 80% of the progesterone, 30-40% of the testosterone and 60-70% of the estrogens in our diet. Meat and fish, about 5% of the progesterone, 20-30% of the testosterone and 15-20% of the estrogens in our diet.  

When people talk about when they talk about hormones in beef is really the administration of a growth hormone to stimulate weight gain in young cattle. There are several reasons for this. People who eat beef prefer (and have come to expect) tender meat. This means eating the meat of younger animals, because the meat of a younger animal is naturally more tender than that of an old animal (obvious, really). For this reason, beef cattle are usually slaughtered at a very young age (from about 18 months to two years). Most male cattle are neutered when they’re young (a process that turns bulls into steers); female cattle (heifers) are spayed. Neutered steers and spayed heifers produce fewer natural hormones than older animals (same with humans), so small amounts of certain hormones are given to them to help them grow.

Most cattle finished in the conventional way are given growth promotants via ear implants. These are small pellets placed underneath the skin in the middle one-third of the ear—a place where there’s no way they could accidentally be included in products intended for human consumption, and no risk of hormone residues entering the meat. The pellets dissolve gradually over 60 to about 120 days, and must be completely depleted before slaughter. Feedlot operators must verify that the pellet is “dead” at least 30 to 45 days before the animal is killed.

Ear implanting

Ear implanting

After the pellet is implanted, its active ingredients are slowly released into the animal’s bloodstream, increasing its blood hormone level just enough to stimulate additional growth in muscle. Implanted animals grow faster, are leaner, and use feed more efficiently. Since the conventional cattle feeding business is defined by very narrow margins affected by seasonal swings in feed costs, the use of implants more than pays for itself in delivering larger, leaner cattle. Note this comment, however, from an implant information sheet: “All growth implants . . . show the greatest improvement in gains and efficiency on higher energy diets.” So the type and quality of feed is critical.

Implants increase weight gain by 5 to 23 percent and improve feed efficiency from 3 to 11 percent. Essentially, the animal grows larger faster, and so can be slaughtered younger. The hormones used are identical (either natural or synthetic versions) to the hormones cattle naturally produce. Today, both the United States and Canada have approved three natural hormones (estradiol, progesterone, and testosterone) and three synthetic hormones (zeranol, trenbolone, and melengesterol) to help cattle feed efficiently, bulk up faster, and develop leaner meat. Note that melengesterol is administered via feed, not implant.

Implants work by speeding muscle growth and reducing fat deposition. Comparing an implanted animal with an animal of the same weight that has not been implanted, the implanted animal will be leaner. But since beef grades are primarily based on the degree of marbling (measured as the amount of internal fat in the rib-eye muscle), implanted cattle will generally need to be fed longer, so that they have time to put on more muscle and marbling.

In the United States, hormone implants are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. The Food Safety Inspection Service of the USDA tests for synthetic hormone residues in meat, but they don’t test for natural hormone residues. It can’t be done . . . animals produce natural hormones throughout their lives. It’s simply not possible to differentiate between hormones occurring naturally, and those from implants. This means that to some extent, the use of growth-promoting hormones cannot be regulated.

Next post: Part Two – Are Hormone Implants Safe?… The Politics

The Livestock Conservancy

17 Feb

Those of you who’ve bought my book will notice that a quite a few photos in the animal breed sections were taken by Jeannette Beranger of the Livestock Conservancy. Super shots of cows, pigs, sheep and chickens you’ve never heard of before.  Like these…

White Park

White Park

Ossabaw hog

Ossabaw hog

Dorset Horn

Dorset Horn

Buff Cochin

Buff Cochin



Jeannette really helped us find these rare or heritage breed images, so I thought you’d like to know more about the organization she’s with. It’s interesting…and important.

The Livestock Conservancy was formed in the 1970s, when people began to realize that traditional agricultural livestock breeds were rapidly disappearing as meat production became more industrialized. And I’m proud to say that the organization began in my home state of Vermont when (quoting from the org’s website), “a handful of concerned citizens gathered at the Vermont Department of Agriculture to sign incorporate papers for the American Minor Breeds Conservancy (the original name of The Livestock Conservancy).” 

Now based in North Carolina, the Livestock Conservancy’s focus is on making sure that our agricultural future is secure by saving endangered breeds from extinction, building up their populations and promoting them to the public.

Why? ‘Cause much of the reason why these breeds were kept viable by farmers for so long is that each brings something special to the table. Things like especially delectable meat, or superb milk, or extraordinary fertility, or – like the Florida Cracker cow – the ability to prosper in challenging environments. Many of these breeds were early contributors to the gene pool of commercial meat animals – endowing them with qualities that make our food taste better, or adding genetic traits for increased fertility or soundness or… 

As some of you will know, genetic diversity is increasingly endangered through the practices of large-scale agricultural production. If we lose diversity, then we place ourselves at greater risk. This – as most of you know – is not only important in the case of meat animals, but also the plant world, which continues to give us treatments for many diseases. Look up “yew” and the cancer drug “taxol” and you’ll get the picture. Or “willow” and “aspirin”. 

Back to the Livestock Conservancy. Their website is fascinating, with pictures of many animal breeds you won’t have heard of. The list includes goats, donkeys, horses, cattle, chickens, sheep, rabbits, ducks, geese and turkeys – a page for each breed, with photos!

Why not support them by becoming a member?

Toot. Toot.

22 Jan

… tooting my own horn here. So reader warning – the following post is unabashed promotion (after almost two years of work,  hey, why not?)

and here it is!!!

and here it is!!!

My book is finished! Published! Available to all! Three hundred and twelve pages of juicy meat-ness, with chapters covering:

  • The real definition, work, and role of a culinary butcher;
  • The roots of butchery from pre-history to today;
  • Meat: selecting your breed, grading and aging, tenderness, storing, and reheating;
  • The truth behind meat marketing claims of “organic”, “natural”, “free-range”, “grass-fed”, “pasture-raised” and more;
  • How meat gets to the table: farmers, slaughtering methods, stress and animal welfare, the role of meat inspectors, cut sheets, what’s legally allowed/not allowed when purchasing meat for further processing, keeping integrity in the local meat movement;
  • Understanding the commercial meat food chain and what goes on behind the scenes at meat markets large and small;
  • Processing your own meat: what you’ll need, tools, safety, and preparation;
  • Beef: domestication, terminology, how cows work, raising methods (grass, grain, etc.), meat-safety issues, hormone growth implants, antibiotics and feed additives, carcass yield and marbling scores, cutting up a beef forequarter and hindquarter, and a partial list of beef breeds;
  • Pork: domestication, terminology, raising methods, grading and inspection, cutting up a side of pork, and a partial list of pork breeds;
  • Sheep: domestication, terminology, raising methods, cutting up a whole lamb, and a partial list of sheep breeds;
  • Chicken: domestication, terminology, how to cut up a whole chicken;
  • How to make sausages;
  • Value-added products: what they are and how they can help increase your bottom line;
  • Your own butcher shop: size, equipment, display, marketing; and,
  • A better way of thinking about meat: including a holistic overview and some conclusions.



“The Gourmet Butcher’s Guide to Meat” comes with a CD with my complete butchery course –  over 800 photos that show you exactly how to cut up a side of beef, side of pork, whole lamb and chicken. Every step described and illustrated.

So how’s them apples? 


And just to prove it’s real, here are a few early reviews:

“Is there a bible of meat? There is one now. Cole Ward’s book demystifies the whole process of how animals are raised, slaughtered, and eventually make it to your plate.  From learning about breeds to cutting up your own side of beef, you will be a more empowered meat eater once you read this book.”
                     Rebecca Thistlethwaite, author, Farms with a Future

“This comprehensive book is far more than a guide to cutting meat – it’s for anyone who want a better understanding of meat (and we all should). Engaging, informative, and yes, fun!”
                     Nicolette Hahn Niman, rancher and author, Righteous Porkchop

“Cole Ward has done an extraordinary job of balancing the widely diverse components of meat production, marketing, and quality in this comprehensive and uniquely informative book. The author has taken every effort to present even the most contentious issues surrounding meat production from a balanced and accurate perspective. His through treatment of thse issues provides the reader the opportunity to make a well-informed decision as a matter of personal choice, unencumbered by emotion or innuendo.  However, the real value of the book is in the articulate way Ward connects the reader to both the science and the artisanship of gourmet butchering.  His comfortable style and incomparable knowledge of gourmet butchering make this a valuable resource for quality meat aficionados and a must read for chefs, butchers, and meat lovers everywhere.”
                       Mark Boggess, PhD, animal scientist and meat-industry expert

The Oldest Butcher Shop in the World

28 Sep

Sometimes, when I get to thinking that it seems like I’ve been a butcher forever, I slap myself upside the head and remember that no, I’m just a spring chicken, compared to the Balson family.

Prepare to be astonished.

balson3This one family have been butchers for almost five hundred years. The R. J. Balson & Son butcher shop has been in continuous operation since 1535. You read that right… when John Balson opened his small meat stall in the market town of Bridport, UK, Henry VIII was the king of England, married to Anne Boleyn (this was before he cut off her head).

Henry VIII as you probably imagine him.

Henry VIII as you probably imagine him.

Balson & Son is the longest-running butcher shop in the world as well as the UK’s oldest family business.  It’s still in the town where it began, and still in the hands of the Balson family, who have passed their knowledge down through the generations. 

Balson butchers today

Balson butchers today

They’ve branched out a little. Oliver Balson, nephew of the current owner and master butcher Richard Balson, now runs the family’s American business, selling their delectable products online: 20 varieties of sausages (including Ostrich/Cranberry sausage, Wild Boar sausage as well as the more typical British sausages), plus dry-cured, handrubbed bacon, meat pies, and so on. 

Balson butchers in 1880

Balson butchers in 1880s


Oliver describes the two operations:  “I work closely with my uncle in terms of recipes, but our materials and methods are very different.  Our UK meats are sourced from local sustainable farms throughout the county of Dorset.  Whole carcasses are brought in and that is where the craft of butchery comes in… in terms of proper cutting to ensure maximum quality with minimal waste.  There was a time when hunters would bring in their day’s spoils, such as wild boar or pheasants, for us to purchase.  But much of that has been put to an end due to increased health regulations. Our customers are mostly locals, but we do get out-of-towners coming by to see the shop because it’s part of a special postcard series,  Collection of Historic Places.”


Pastured Pigs and Garbage Pigs

17 Sep
Courtesy Heidi C. Normand, Mosefund Farm

Courtesy Heidi C. Normand, Mosefund Farm

You might translate “pastured” as free-range. In the old days, pigs were released into meadows of forests to fend for themselves. Since pigs will eat everything (making them omnivores like us), that meant things like mushrooms, roots, worms, bugs, nuts and even meat like birds and mice.

This worked out well for colonial farmers. Their pigs roamed free, squeezing through crude post-and-rail fences and wandering through neighboring farms and forests. They became such a nuisance that laws were passed to identify which pig belonged to which farmer. The cliché image of the ring in the pig’s nose dates from these early days; rings prevented the pigs from rooting up farmers’ crops. See how much you can learn from a butcher?

The term for pasturing in a forest—practiced for centuries in Europe—is pannage. In the Middle Ages, the owners of forests made more money selling mast rights than wood. Mast refers to the nuts or fruit of forest trees like beech, oak, and so on, which are eaten by wild animals—and pigs—as they forage.

The second method of swine raising involves bringing the food to the pigs. One of the earliest—and still going—uses of the pig was as a garbage eater. Our garbage. The garbage pig has been kept by many civilizations. Its role was to eat a family’s leftover scraps, as well as waste from mills and garbage from hospitals and large institutions. Pretty much anything we didn’t want. In the days before municipal sewage systems, it was the pig that took care of things. In early China and Korea there was a “privy pig” that ate—oh, yuck—human excrement. And then was eaten by the humans. I’ll let you  ponder that a little.

I wonder… was it this association with garbage that led to the avoidance of pork by certain cultures? No other animal is saddled with so many “no-nos”. About a fifth of the world’s population won’t eat pork. That includes Muslims, Jews, Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, and many Buddhists and Hindus.


What is Ritual Slaughter?

5 Aug


Hoo-ha-ha-ha. Hoo-ha-ha-ha.

Hoo-ha-ha-ha. Hoo-ha-ha-ha.

Don’t be influenced by how it sounds – there are no people dancing and chanting around the animal, nor is the animal considered some sort of sacrifice. Ritual slaughter simply means killing an animal in a manner that allows it to be eaten in the way required by a specific religion.

Kosher and Glatt Kosher are terms for foods allowable under the dietary laws of Judiasm. Halal is the term applied to foods allowable under the dietary laws of the Muslim faith. These dietary laws cover all foods, not just meat. 

But what about meat?

Kosher meat harks back to the Jewish Bible (the Torah), specifically, Deuteronomy (14:3-10), which states:

These are the animals you may eat: the ox, the sheep, the goat, the deer, the gazelle, the roe deer, the wild goat, the ibex, the antelope and the mountain sheep. You may eat any animal that has a split hoof divided in two and that chews the cud. However, of those that chew the cud or that have a split hoof completely divided you may not eat the camel, the rabbit or the coney. Although they chew the cud, they do not have a split hoof; they are ceremonially unclean for you. The pig is also unclean; although it has a split hoof, it does not chew the cud. You are not to eat their meat or touch their carcasses. Of all the creatures living in the water, you may eat any that has fins and scales.

But simply eating one of the allowable animals doesn’t make meat Kosher. The animal must be slaughtered in a specific way known as Shechitah, performed by a person called a Shochet. A Shochet must also be a pious man trained in Jewish law, particularly relating to Kashrut (dietary laws). The Shochet kills the animal with one quick, deep stroke across the throat. He uses a razor-sharp blade, which cannot have nicks or unevenness. The method is painless and causes rapid unconsciousness.

Glatt Kosher: There’s an assumption that Glatt means a higher standard of kosher, but this is inaccurate (although generally accepted). The Yiddish word glatt means “smooth”, and refers to the condition of the animal’s lungs when inspected after slaughter. If the lungs contain adhesions or other defects, the meat will not receive the certification of glatt kosher. As simple as that. Glatt kosher cannot be applied to chicken, dairy products or fish. If you see cheese labeled glatt, it’s not!

Yes, really.

Yes, really.


Halal means  “permissible” in Arabic. In butchery terms, it is applied to meat slaughtered according to Islamic dietary law. Like Kosher, Halal slaughter is done by cutting the animal’s throat. However, Halal requires praying to Allah at the time of slaughter.

Muslims are taught by the Qur’an (Koran) and the teachings of the prophet Mohammed that animals should be treated with respect and well cared for.  Muslim law regarding how animals are killed is known as Dhabihah, and is quite specific. 

The animal must be treated gently and should be offered water at the time of slaughter. Out of mercy towards the animal, the knife must be extremely sharp, not serrated, and should be kept hidden until the last moment. Slaughter must be done by an adult Muslim, Jew or Christian (termed “People of the Book” in Arab culture).

It is also preferable that  head of the animal should be positioned to face Mecca; the animal is then killed in a respectful way that limits suffering or pain. When an animal is slaughtered, it must be done “with Ihsaan” (in a beautiful, caring way). This is done by cutting the jugular vein swiftly to cut off oxygen to the brain and pain receptors, then waiting as blood completely drains out (like Jews, Muslims are forbidden to consume blood).


Good Meat Doesn’t Just Happen

7 Jul

What makes good meat? Lots and lots of factors… how and where the animal was raised, what it ate, how it was treated, how it was slaughtered (which is very important), and – post-slaughter – how it was aged.

Many folks assume that the fresher the meat, the better. Not so. I guarantee you that if you cook and eat a steak from a freshly-slaughtered animal, you won’t be happy. Why? Because as muscle becomes meat, all sorts of internal chemical and physical processes begin. Much of the taste, tenderness and “mouth-feel” of meat depends on proper pre- and post-slaughter practices. In fact, they’re critical in ensuring that meat tastes like meat. 

One of the first things processing facilities do after slaughtering an animal is to chill it in a temperature controlled environment. This is done to bring the carcass temperature quickly down – which reduces bleeding – as well as to “firm up” the carcass for cutting. During this first phase of “becoming meat”, each carcass will shrink (through loss of moisture) about 1-2%. 

The chill room at The Royal Butcher slaughtering facility, Vermont

The chill room at The Royal Butcher slaughtering facility, Vermont

Beef carcasses are generally chilled for about two days; pig carcasses for less than one day. The  profitability of a slaughtering facility is determined by its its through-put, so since chill rooms can only hold a set number of carcasses at any one time, the facility needs to move those carcasses out.

This takes us to the next step – aging. And (at least for beef), a choice – between wet aging or dry aging. There’s a big difference. No matter which, aging is VERY important. Meat is not ready to be eaten right after slaughter. It needs time to become tender, which happens as connective tissues within the muscle break down. Aging is that breakdown process. The ideal aging period is 21 to 24 days. 

Almost all beef you buy in stores today has been “wet-aged” (usually for about 14 days); cut into portions by the processing plant, then vacuum-packed in sealed plastic bags for shipment to distribution or supermarket warehouses where the meat packages are held for a specified period of time as the meat ages in its own juices. Wet-aging is popular because it takes less time and no further weight is lost in the process. 

A box of wet-aged vacuum-packaged meat in the back room of a supermarket.

A box of wet-aged vacuum-packaged meat in the back room of a supermarket.

You may have heard the term “dry aged”. This is a different process, in which the carcass is stored in a temperature and humidity controlled environment for up to 24 (or more) days. Since this requires a near-freezing hanging room and takes so long, it’s really only used for the very highest quality grades of meat and is rarely done outside certain butcher shops and high-end steakhouses. It’s extremely unlikely you’ll find dry-aged meat in your supermarket. 

Each process produces a slightly different flavor. Dry-aged beef is often described as having a nuttier, more “roasted” taste, while wet-aged beef is described as milder.

 By the way, pork is generally not aged as beef is, although there’s a trend evolving for dry-aged heritage pork. Heritage pork is pork from older, traditional breeds like the Tamworth or Duroc pig. Modern commercial pork is a very different animal, as I’ll explain in future blogs.

What do we eat when we eat meat?

3 Jul


If you look the word  meat up, you’ll usually find it  defined as muscle tissue from a meat animal. Meat animals are many, of course, but to most North Americans, are typically cattle, or pigs, or sheep, or chickens, or turkeys, or ducks, or geese, or (less commonly) rabbits and goats. But many folks hunt, so for them the definition will include deer, as well as – perhaps – elk, possum, moose and bear. Anybody out there dining on beaver?

Butcherly speaking, the word “meat” extends beyond muscle tissue to include offal (also called variety or organ meat). The name comes from the old days, and refers to the bits that “fall off” the carcass when the animal is slaughtered. So “meat” would also include liver, kidney, heart, sweetbreads, tripe, gizzards and (not recommended) brain. Chicken feet are a big delicacy in many Asian countries. No, I do not have a handy recipe for them. Stop begging.

Back to muscle tissue meat. Most animal muscle consists of about 75% water, 19% protein, 2.5% intramuscular fat, 1.2% carbohydrates and about 2.3% other substances like amino acids and minerals. Muscles are made up of bundles of cells called fibers, each of which contains filaments of two proteins: actin and myosin, which give the muscle its  structure. Other muscle components include connective tissue like collagen and elastin. Meat also contains extramuscular (outside) fat, which the animal uses to store energy, and intramuscular fat, which contains things like cholesterol and other substances, and is usually referred to as marbling.

As for the word meat itself  – it’s tough to trace its roots. Some claim its origin is the Old English word mete or maet, meaning any food. Others say it goes back further to the Indo-European word mad, meaning moist or wet. Up till about the 13th century, meat simply meant food – any food. Eventually the word began to be associated just with animal flesh.

And now there you are – meat eaters!