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A Beef Consumers Guide

By Charles Hopkins Published 05/2/2006 | Food & Drink
The beef trade laments falling sales. It blames B.S.E.; it points a finger at the zealots from C.A.R.M. (The Campaign Against Red Meat), rising production costs and pomegranate diets.

In fact the industry identifies everything but the central reason for the public's disillusionment with this fine meat.

The truth of the matter is that too much of the stuff is plain rubbish. It's just about fit to feed to your dog (so long as you're not too fond of your dog).

There was a time, forty or fifty years ago, when the beef on the butcher's slab was a very different item than it is today. It was almost always from a meat bullock, not a dairy cow.

Domestic cattle are bred either for meat or dairy. They are not properly interchangeable.

Altogether too much second-rate dairy meat gets into the stores now. It is insipid, prone to toughness and is insufficient in the right kind of fat.

In those halcyon days of beautiful beef, it wasn't bright red and, of course, had no business being bright red. Such a color describes meat that has not been hung for at least two or three weeks in a dry, cold atmosphere.

One major reason for not hanging meat is that, as the liquid content evaporates over the period, there is less weight to sell and profit margins are thus eroded. The butcher could increase the price but at the risk of customer complaints.

Bright red meat is likely to be lacking in any depth of flavor. The color of properly hung meat is very dark red, almost brown in fact.

The fat surrounding the meat, then, was yellow. The animals grazed on grass, the only proper food for cattle. The chemical action of the chlorophyll in the grass causes the yellowness.

The animals were never fed on barley or grain in feedlots. It is those feedstuffs that cause the fat to be hard and white.

It's a sad fact that producers have managed to persuade consumers that they actually prefer 'creamy white' fat. The simple truth is that it's just a darned sight cheaper to produce. The consumer has been led by the nose, all the way to tasteless, bland, mass-produced rubbish.

After roasting, the underlying fat disappeared and rendered down into dripping (tallow), leaving a thin delicious brown crust. They were certainly never given hormone supplements to dramatically increase their weight. Happily this potentially dangerous practice has now been banned within the E.U.

So, having said all of the above, is beef a totally lost cause? Is there anything that can be done to put quality meat on your table again?

Yes there is, and the first skirmish in the battle is for you to be pretty aggressive with your butcher.

Ask why the fat is white. Why is the meat the color of 1920s lipstick? Will it be tender? If the answer is "Yes" then ask how that can be when the meat has clearly not been hung. Was the animal fed hormones? Was it fed cattle cake during the winter? Cattle cake often contains heavy metals, substances that you really do not need in your diet.

Persuade your carnivorous friends that the situation is not good enough. Start a campaign to force your butcher to stock what you want, not necessarily what he wants to sell to you.

An excellent read on the subject is the old favorite 'Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal' by Eric Schlosser. There is a lot of good information there, about the beef that reaches the consumer in the United States.

One sure-fire route out of the sad beef loop is to buy organic. Whether it is healthier or not is a subject for the scientists. What is absolutely certain, though, is that it tastes so much better.

If the price of organic beef is too steep, then there are plenty of small farmers producing grass-fed beef.

To buy the very best of beef, you have to be prepared to pay quite a lot more. Maybe the answer is to eat it less often but for it to be a great experience when you do invest.

Unfortunately, if you're a 32oz steak person, you are going to need a pretty fat wallet!