Tag Archives: supermarkets

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.



Supermarket “butchers”

19 Nov

Learning to cut meat in a supermarket is like reading a book starting in the middle.  You never get the whole story. 

Half the process is already complete by the time the meat reaches the supermarket. Why? Because the meat arrives at the store in large packages of pre-cut primal cuts, ready for further breaking down into retail cuts.

All an apprentice meat cutter learns in a supermarket is how to slice primal cuts (which are well labeled) into steaks or roasts. In other words: “Cut along this line and don’t ask why.”

He or she generally won’t know where the cuts come from on the animal, why certain cuts are tender or tough, which cuts are better suited for long, slow moisture cooking, and which for faster dry cooking. 

You get the picture.  THEY’RE NOT BUTCHERS.

So ask questions. If your supermarket’s meat people can’t answer your questions and give you that Duh? look, then be wary.

I don’t want to give you the impression that I’m against supermarkets. I’m not; they’re an efficient way to shop and have made life a lot easier for working people. But I do hold a tiny grudge against those which advertise their “butcher department” when I know d*mn well that there’s no such thing behind those white doors.