LeVaux: Grass-fed beef can be good 365 days a year
There is an unfortunate stigma attached to frozen meat, a widely held assumption that it’s inferior to fresh meat. This prejudice runs deep enough that fast-food chain Wendy’s promises that its burger meat is “always fresh, never frozen.”
This belief, and all the retail efforts that cater to it, are misguided. If processed correctly, frozen meat is just as good as fresh. It also has advantages, such as the fact that it won’t spoil in a few days. And with grass-fed beef, depending on what time of year the animal is slaughtered, frozen could very well be more nutritious than fresh.
Scott Barger of Mannix Brothers Ranch in Montana told me he prefers to slaughter his cattle in midsummer, when feed quality is at its highest. “This would offer our customers the most healthy product, from a nutritional standpoint, because of the high omega-3s, the conjugated linoleic acids and other benefits of grass beef that come from our animals eating a living product. When you remove those animals from eating live feed and put them on a stored-feed ration, those nutritional levels in the meat go down.”
Feedlot beef producers don’t have these concerns. They can keep their animals fat all winter long with relative ease by feeding them grain. To them, selling meat fresh is the way to go, because it allows for full-throttle beef production year-round, will no extra steps like freezing.
The grass-fed beef industry, on the other hand, suffers from the idea that consumers think frozen meat is inferior to fresh. In most supermarkets, fresh meat is prominently presented in shiny display cases while frozen meat, if there’s any for sale at all, lurks down the frozen-food aisle. The only way grass-fed beef producers can get any visibility for their product in a supermarket is to supply fresh beef for that display case. To do that, however, grass-fed beef producers would have to maintain a year-round supply of market-sized animals ready for slaughter.
This reality broke a once-promising relationship between Whole Foods and Wyoming’s Arapaho Ranch in 2010. Arapaho Ranch’s cattle graze on native grasses at the foot of the Wind River Mountains, and are tended by Native American cowboys on horseback. This pristine, romantic setting seems exactly the kind of thing that Whole Foods shoppers would be eager to buy into. But the arrangement folded in its first year, thanks to Whole Foods’ need — based entirely on the insistence of its customers — for fresh beef throughout the winter.
Because frozen beef doesn’t get much love at grocery stores, ranchers in cold regions who want to slaughter at the optimal time have little choice but to market their beef frozen, through the mail. Transactions like this are good for the rancher in that there is no middleman involved. But the consumer has to pay the high price of express shipping. And there is a karmic cost to burning so much carbon for the convenience of next-day frozen steak. If grocery stores had a strong-enough demand for frozen beef, ranchers could make bulk shipments of their frozen meat to retail outlets. They would be giving up a cut to a middleman, but it could be a lot less work than mailing away your animals piece by piece.
If frozen meat were the supermarket norm, the grass-fed beef industry would have a lot more room to operate. But this will only happen if consumers are willing to make lifestyle adjustments. Switching to frozen meat means more than just walking down a different supermarket aisle. It also requires meal planning that factors in the time needed for defrosting.
Customers need to educate themselves, becoming savvy about the difference between well-frozen and poorly frozen meat. Avoid frozen meat that’s wrapped in paper, preventing you from seeing what’s inside. Properly frozen meat should be wrapped in tight plastic that hugs the meat, leaving no airspace where ice crystals can form. Stay away from any meat that’s discolored or has ice or air inside. Make note of the packing date, and make sure that you use the meat before it’s a year old.
Let frozen beef thaw slowly, overnight if possible, as thawing it too quickly can destroy a good piece of meat. No microwave or hot water, ever. If it’s an emergency, I’ll thaw frozen meat in a pot of cold water, in its packaging. But I have to be in a total hurry to even think of doing that.
If that’s not fast enough, Wendy’s has a burger to sell you.
Ari LeVaux is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes about food in all of its contexts in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
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