When you purchase a toy for your child or a piece of clothing from the mall, you can simply check the tag to find out where it was made. If you want to take things a step further, you can do a little research to find out where the produce in your grocery store is imported from. But how much thought do you put into the meat you feed your family week in and week out?
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sets rules and regulations to keep consumers safe. One of these regulations is the Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) law which requires certain products to carry labels indicating that they are imported from another country. These laws apply to fresh and frozen produce, wild and farm-raised fish, certain proteins like lamb, goat, and chicken, but they do not apply to commonly consumed meats like beef and pork.
Since their inception, meat delivery services have been disrupting the established meat industry with one key selling point — tell people more about the meat they're eating. And it's working. Meat boxes such as ButcherBox have surged in popularity by simply dedicating their business to helping people get higher quality meats and understand where they came from.
Why is it important to know where your meat comes from? Today we're going to explore that question, uncover some unsettling facts about the meat industry, and help you determine what other meat purchasing options you have.
What’s the Problem with Store-Bought Meats?
When you purchase food from your local grocery store, you take for granted that it is safe to consume. After all, food products are held to certain quality and safety standards established by the FDA. The problem is that mistakes can happen and, when they do, the product can be recalled. Food recalls are commonly issued because foreign materials have been found in the food or because it tests positive for bacterial contamination. What are some of the most commonly recalled food products? Grocery store meats. If you want to be shocked even more, Google "grocery store meat recall" and you'll see tens of thousands of articles listing meat recalls by grocery store brand. Some may be as recently as the month you're reading this article.
Most Americans don’t think twice about the meat they buy at the supermarket, but what you don’t know in this case could very well hurt you. Here are some disturbing facts about store-bought meats:
- Deli slicers are difficult to clean and often go uncleaned properly. This allows bacteria on the machine and blade to be transferred to nearly everything it touches, including other meats and the slicers hands.
- Ever picked up a package of meat in the grocery store only to have the meat liquid inside drip onto your hands? Plastic-wrapped meats can not only be breeding grounds for food-borne pathogens (such as E. coli, listeria, and salmonella), but they're also rather easy to transfer those pathogens being in flimsy styrofoam packaging.
- Expiration dates on meat may not mean much – most states don’t regulate date labeling and grocery stores can change the expiration date if the product still looks okay.
- Most store-bought meat is treated with antibiotics used to bolster the immune systems of the factory-farmed animals it came from. This is due to the harsh conditions most cows live in before butchering, in which the animals are more likely to get sick.
- According to a 2011 study, almost half of all raw meat sold in grocery stores contains staph infection bacteria, including potentially lethal MRSA.
- Certain cuts of store-bought meat are mechanically tenderized which exposes the sterile inside of the meat to bacteria, potentially contaminating the entire cut.
- Raw meat sold in grocery stores is often treated with carbon monoxide to give it a bright red color that doesn’t necessarily indicate freshness.
- Packages of ground beef sold in stores can be made from the meat of hundreds, sometimes thousands, of cows.
On top of all of this, in 2016, Country of Origin Labeling laws were repealed. This means that retailers and producers are no longer required to label meat products with the country in which the animal was raised, slaughtered, or processed. This change came about after Canada and Mexico, two of the U.S.’ largest trade partners, argued that laws mandating country of origin labels discouraged Americans from buying meat sourced outside the U.S.
Advocates of the repeal claim that this change has no bearing on food safety, but it represents a decline in transparency within the food industry. The FDA still regulates the import of meat, limiting it to countries whose inspection systems are equivalent to U.S. standards. However, as we can see from the distressing facts above, food safety issues remain nonetheless.
That's why it's up to you to make smart and informed choices about your meat — where it comes from, how it was handled, and if it's even safe to eat.
Higher Quality Alternatives to Store-Bought Meat
If the above shocked you enough to want to give up on your grocery store meats, don't worry, you have other options.
The first is one that has been around for decades — local butchers. Beyond the fact that butchers specialize in providing a variety of different meats (which allows you to get rare cuts and types) they generally keep their meat storage and cutting practices to a higher standard than grocery stores. Walking in, you'll be able to use the butcher as a resource to learn more about how to store your meat, which are the freshest, how to best cook certain cuts, and where it came from. Local butchers have relationships with the farms they purchase their meats from so they're qualified to answer any questions you ask.
The next options are online butchers, meat delivery services, and farms that ship their meats direct. All of these services are generally the same — they give you the ability to purchase a high quality meat online. However, they each go about their business a bit differently.
Online butchers and meat delivery services are generally middlemen between the farms and you. Just like your local butcher, they'll source the meats, butcher them, and send them right to your door.
Alternatively, you can go directly to the farms to buy your meat online. Not all farms sell their meats direct to consumers yet (simply due to technological and logistical restraints) but each year, more and more are taking their farms online. Here's a rather extensive list of farms that ship direct to consumers.
At Food Box HQ, we tend to recommend online butchers and meat delivery services simply because the quality of meats is just as high as buying direct from farms and they usually offer a much better purchasing experience (e.g. the website is easier to use, packaging is better).
Whether buying meat from a butcher, online butcher, or any other meat delivery service, be sure to look for or ask for the following types of meats to ensure it's of the highest quality...
- Pasture-Raised Meat: Pasture-raised animals receive a significant percentage of their nutrition from organically managed pastures and may receive supplemental organic grains.
- Grass-Fed Meat: Animals that are grass-fed eat nothing but fresh grass or hay from the time they are weaned off their mother’s milk until they are harvested.
- Organic Meat: In order to be certified organic, the animal must be fed certified organic feed that doesn’t contain any growth hormones or antibiotics. The animal must also have access to the outdoors and be raised on organic land.
- Free-Range: Animals that are free-range are uncaged and free to move with outdoor access, though the amount or type of access is unspecified.
Why should you be asking for these types of meats? Compared to feed lot animals, pasture-raised, grass-fed, and organic meats tend to have lower total fat but higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids. This means that they are often lower in calories than equivalent cuts of factory-farmed meat with the additional benefit of being free from hormones and antibiotics.
Free-range animals are given the ability to live a better life, spending time in the pasture out on the range, where they naturally belong. In addition, some say that meat from animals that lived free-range, on a pasture, tastes better.
Choosing A Meat Delivery Service
If you're ready to make the switch to higher quality meat and would rather the convenience of having a box shipped right to your doorstep, we can help you figure out which service is right for you.
Every meat delivery service is unique and offers their own particular benefits, so you’ll need to do some research to determine the best option for you and/or family. To help, we've compiled an in-depth article on our favorites here. If you'd rather save some time, here's a rundown the best options to consider:
- Butcher Box: Whether you've ever considered meat delivery previously, there's a good chance you've heard of Butcher Box before. They were one of the first to popularize high-quality meat delivery. They take quality very seriously and list out how they source their meats here. They currently offer 20 different cuts of beef, pork, and chicken. If you'd like to learn more, you can read our full Butcher Box review here.
- Crowd Cow: Like Butcher Box, Crowd Cow offers a similar service whereby they source and send you meats. However, they offer a much wider variety of meats — beef (including Japanese Wagyu), chicken, pork, lamb, seafood, turkey, and duck. If you'd like to learn more, you can read our full Crowd Cow review here.
- Snake River Farms: Known for their commitment to quality and having been established the longest, Snake River Farms offers the widest variety of rare meat cuts and types. To give you an example, they offer dry-aged beefs, American Wagyu (steaks, briskets, burgers, hot dogs), and Kurobuta pork (the pork equivalent of American Wagyu or Kobe beef). If you'd like to learn more, you can read our full Snake River Farms review here.
- Grass Roots Farmers' Cooperative: Unlike the three services above, Grass Roots is what's known as a "farmers coop". This is a group of farms that own the business together. Working as a group allows them to bring the same level of direct-to-consumer quality at a higher scale. Every package of meat they send has information about the farm the animal was from as well as the animals journey from pasture to plate. If you'd like to learn more, you can read our full Grass Roots review here.
- Rastelli's: If you're looking for the online version of a traditional butcher, Rastelli's might be the right option for you. They started out as a local family butcher business in New Jersey and have since expanded to offering their meats nationwide. In fact, there's even a chance you've even seen them on QVC. What makes them one of our favorites is that their commitment to quality and customer satisfaction is one of the best. Their guarantee states that if you're unhappy in any way with what you purchase from them, they'll refund you. If you'd like to learn more, you can read our full Rastelli's review here.
For most American families, meat is a staple. If you’re feeding your family something on a weekly or even daily basis, it's important to understand where it came from and what's really in it. Quality should be celebrated, not hidden.
If you're looking for a higher standard of meat, try one of the recommended services above for uncompromised safety and maximum flavor.
Have a question we didn't answer? Want to know more about any of the meat delivery services mentioned? Let us know in the comments below and we'll get back to you as soon as possible!