Tag Archives: steak

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.



Steak it to me

22 Jan

Lots of people ask me to explain the difference between steaks.  I get it – it’s confusing.  Some of that’s because names change over the years, and many cuts of meat have several different names (often tied to different geographical areas).

Basically, your typical “high end” steaks are the New York strip, the filet mignon and the rib-eye.  Then you drop down to the restaurant-style sirloin.

New York strip and filet mignon come from the loin of the animal… in fact, from the same piece of meat.  Difference is that the New York strip is cut from the top of the loin and the filet mignon from inside the loin.  Since the inside muscle is particularly inactive, that means that the filet mignon will be the most tender.  In fact, it’s the tenderest cut on the animal.  But the New York strip delivers better flavor.  It’s a matter of personal preference.

So, you ask…  if the filet mignon is the tenderest cut, what’s the second most tender?   Surprise – it’s not the NY strip or rib-eye.  It’s the flat iron steak, which comes from another inactive muscle at the front of the animal.  But keep in mind that it can be difficult to find flat iron steaks, because there are only four on each animal.

Rule of thumb when ordering:  anything from the animal’s loin and ribs will be a tender piece of meat because these muscles work the least.