Tag Archives: aging meat

How Supermarkets Market Meat

3 Dec

An excerpt from my upcoming book “The Gourmet Butcher’s Guide to Meat”…

Supermarkets sell products at low prices by cutting margins and relying on volume to deliver profit. How do they do this? A number of ways:

• Selling certain products—normally staple foods—at a loss (loss leaders), counting on the attractiveness of the deal to bring customers into the store. Once the customers are there, they’re sure to buy something else.

• Reducing labor costs through a self-service approach—you do the work yourself (including, these days, often checking yourself out). 

• Taking advantage of economies of scale by owning their own warehouses and distribution centers, which are generally located in the largest city in the area.

meat case


To give you some context, it’s helpful to understand how the meat business works. And believe you me, it’s big business.

There are four major meat processor/distributors in the United States (as well as a number of minor players). In 2013, the top four were:

• Tyson, with about 25 percent of the market share.

• Cargill, with about 21 percent.

• JBS, with 18.5 percent.

• National Beef Packing, with about 10.5 percent.

Each week, these companies slaughter and process hundreds of thousands of pounds of beef and other meats, shipping them out to big redistributors and supermarket chain warehouses. Shipments go out in refrigerated trucks holding 40,000 pounds of meat at a time. Supermarket chain warehouses send the meat on to individual stores in the chain. Redistributors send it on to multiple end users, which could be smaller meat markets, restaurants, hotels, and so on.

Now let’s consider what this means for consumers, in terms of the quality of meat products offered by supermarkets, meat markets, and many restaurants.

There are two primary factors that determine beef quality are fat marbling and aging. Aging is measured from the date of slaughter, because as soon as an animal is killed the aging process begins. In the old days (not really that long ago), the aging norm was 21 days, measured as follows:

• Two days aging in a chilling room at the processing plant.

• Two days aging in a chilled truck during transportation to the distributor.

• Approximately 17 days aging in the distributor/supermarket’s central chilling facility before shipping to ultimate customers.

But then market realities stepped into the picture, as they so often do, and the aging period was reduced to about 14 days. Why? Economics. Meat processors demand their money COD or within seven days. This means that when a redistributor or store chain receives one of those 40,000-pound truckloads of meat from a processor, they have to write a big check on (or almost on) the spot. But since these “middlemen” have to further age the meat for another 17 days while making weekly shipments out to their end users, they need to stock three weeks’ worth of meat in their chill rooms—a total of 100,000 pounds of beef. It’s a huge investment.

Are you getting a hint of where I’m going with this? Why not reduce the cost of sitting inventory by cutting a week off the aging process? Who’ll notice?

And there, gentle readers, is the answer to your oft-asked question, “How come I can’t get a good steak at a supermarket?” It’s not just the quality grade, it’s the aging. The difference in tenderness between meat aged 14 days and meat aged 21 days is almost 25 percent. Ponder on that.



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.