At the moment the quality of the food we are eating seems to be coming under increasing scrutiny, and nowhere is this more apparent than the meat industry. A combination of disease scares, fear of genetic modification and concerns over animal welfare have made consumers a lot more conscious about what they are putting into their mouths. Should you buy free-range? Organic? Corn fed? Matured? The options are endless.
Coming from an agricultural AND catering background, I thought I’d share my knowledge of the UK farming industry, and outline what you should be looking for in quality meat, starting from the rearing system used, right through to the butchery.
Rearing Techniques Poultry and Pork
Welfare issues aside, the way poultry and pork are reared can greatly impact the quality of the meat. In intensive rearing systems, animals are pushed to grow very rapidly. To achieve this, they are fed a balanced diet mixture to promote weight gain; turnover is very quick, enabling cheap meat to be produced. A downside of this is that the animals can have higher fat content than more extensively reared animals. The animals also move around less, which contributes to the fat content.
Free-range animals have the option to roam outside. Obviously this means that they get more exercise – producing longer, leaner muscles. A secondary advantage to free-range is that the animals have the option to supplement their diet with forage plants, bugs, seeds etc. This can alter the flavour of the meat, even to the extent that pigs reared in oak forests can be prized for their nutty flavour. Generally, free-range animals are slower growing than their intensively reared counterparts; again many claim this gives a greater flavour.
There is a third method of rearing poultry that gives somewhat surprising results. Corn-fed birds are generally considered to have an excellent flavour, especially if they are also free range. A (completely harmless) side effect of feeding a high corn diet is that the meat will be yellow. This will range from a slight tint, to quite a deep yellow/orange colour. To be honest, I am undecided whether corn-fed is tastier, but it certainly looks impressive.
Rearing Systems Beef and Lamb
In general, there is less debate over which rearing system is best for ruminants, and this is because there is very little variety. The needs of ruminants are much more specific than poultry and pigs. As long as they have the calories, pigs and poultry grow quite well. Ruminants, on the other hand, have quite specific needs. If these are not met, the animal will not grow well, and the farmer loses out. At least that is the case in the UK – I realise that in America different supplements and hormones can be used, so I cannot comment on your beef and lamb.
Breed Effects on Meat Quality
In the last few years, there has been a renewed interest in rare breed animals think Aberdeen Angus beef, or Gloucester old spot pork. In terms of the make-up of this meat compared to commercial breeds, the major difference is the amount and distribution of fat. Rare breeds will have more fat within the muscle, giving more tender meat. Any other differences in taste are mostly to do with rearing techniques they may be slower growing, or less intensively farmed etc.
Overall, I would say the resurgence of rare breeds is a good thing, as it prevents these breeds becoming extinct. It also supports smaller farms. So if you can afford it, even if it’s only for special occasions, give a rare breed a try!
In general, I would not say organic meat is better than non organic. Overall, I think the most important thing is the intensiveness of the rearing system. In large scale rearing systems, disease outbreaks are more common, so more drugs may be used as a preventative measure. In the end, the choice to buy organic is down to your own personal preference. I will not claim to know as much about this aspect of meat production as the others, but the soil association and wikipedia have extensive information on the subject.
Stress and Eating Quality
You can have the most amazing, free range, organic, rare-breed bull – but if it is stressed out at the point of slaughter the meat will be ruined. When animals are stressed they release stress hormones. If this happens shortly before, or at the point of slaughter, it will affect the meat. To spot well slaughtered meat, whatever the species, the meat should look firm and dry. If it looks soft, saggy and is sitting in a pool of liquid it indicates a stressed animal. The meat will either be tough, or texture-less on cooking. Avoid buying this.
After an animal has been slaughtered and dressed (the inedible parts and offal has been removed) the animal needs to be hung. This is done in a dry, cool place, and allows the effects of rigor mortis to subside, tenderising the meat. In cattle and sheep it also allows the favour to develop. The larger the animal, the longer the hanging time poultry need only 1-3 days, cattle can hang for 28 days or more. The following information applies only to red meats, due to the short hanging time it affects poultry less: the position the animal was hung in affects the quality of the meat. If you have access to such information, look for meat that has been “hip-hung” rather than the more traditional leg or hock-hung. In hip hanging, the animal is hung in a position that leaves its joints in their natural alignment. This results in more tender meat.
Beef benefits the most from longer hanging. However, this is a costly process for producers storing the meat is deer, and the carcass looses weight through evaporation, meaning there is less to sell. Because of this, most large producers sell beef after only 5-10 days. This is OK for minced beef and stewing cuts, but produces inferior steaks and roasting joints. It is worth spending more on beef that has been hung for 21 days or more for these cuts. If you buy meat from a supermarket, check the label as it should indicate how long it has hung. If you use a butcher, ask them, they should know. Do not be concerned if this meat looks dark red, that is the colour it should be. Bright red steaks and joints are too fresh, and may be tough and tasteless.
Fat and Eating Quality:
For many people, fat is now a dirty word. In response to this, we are breeding leaner and leaner meat much of the beef we buy now is less than 10% fat, as opposed to around 25% 30 years ago. However, a little fat adds flavour to meat. When buying beef, lamb and pork you want to look for a good degree of marbling. This is small flecks of fat throughout the muscle. On cooking, this melts into the meat adding flavour and moistness. This adds very little extra fat into the serving. If you are looking for a cut with fat on it, the fat should be an even thickness, and white or creamy-coloured. Beef and lamb fat can have a slightly crusted, buttery appearance at the surface. Even if you are watching your fat levels, I would cook this meat with the fat on, and remove it after to preserve the flavour and moistness.
When dealing with poultry, often this meat is fattier than we are lead to believe. This is due to extensive rearing processes. Free-range birds are generally leaner as they grow more slowly, and do more exercise. Most of the fat from poultry is in the skin, and the remainder is in the legs and thighs. Any visible fat should be white, and the skin should be even, not torn. The only exception to this is if you are buying corn-fed birds, where the fat may be pale yellow.
Finally, I will end on a few points that do not easily fit into the other categories:
1) When buying whole chickens, look at the hock (the joint at the end of the drumstick). If there is discolouration here, it is the evidence of ammonia burns. These are caused by animals being forced to stand in their own waste. It doesn’t harm the meat, but is a sign that the establishment that produced the birds may not have the best welfare standards.
2) Minced meat should have a uniform distribution of fat. There should not be any unpleasant looking bits.
3) If you see bruising on the meat, this happened prior to slaughter. You shouldn’t buy this meat as it will probably be poor quality.
4) I am writing from a UK perspective, so I cannot vouch for farming systems used elsewhere in the world.