|Chilly Piglets, now weaned but still indoors, like to watch the barn goings-on.|
|Very fresh chickens in early April grass.|
|Five week old meat chicken on May grass.|
But let's look at what "fresh" really means. The USDA defines "fresh" meat as anything kept between 26° and 40° F;* the temperature is allowed to swing back and forth between those two numbers to any extent and the inspectors won't bat an eye. The problem is that, at 26°, the meat is actually starting to freeze, and every time it climbs into the low 30s, it begins to thaw again. This means that small ice crystals form, thaw, and reform under the skin and in the cell membranes, which damages the cellular structure and results in drier, tougher meat (Christopher Kimball says so, so you know it must be true). With the slaughterhouse, truck, distribution warehouse, grocery store stock room, grocery store shelves, and consumer refrigerator all involved, plus the loading, unloading and transportation of the meat between each of these, it is all but guaranteed that the full up and down swing will happen several times (not to mention that the meat has probably strayed out of the range on one end or the other for a bit).
|Growers are new to grass as of last night; they are very happy to meet it.|
So yes, our meat is often frozen. But it has only been frozen one time, and it's stayed that way. Aside from the obvious boons of grass, sunshine, the generally more natural lives of our animals and whatever other mysteries that make actual farm meat so much tastier than its industrial counterpart, this handling post-death is one of the things that I think we have going for us in the meat quality department. If only more people knew it.
*According to their website http://www.fsis.usda.gov/regulations/Labeling_Fresh_Not_Frozen/index.asp, they chose 26 as the lower number because even though at 26 degrees a good many parts of the bird will indeed be frozen, it still "gives" a little when touched by the consumer; thus the consumer would consider it "fresh." Basically they asked consumers what they considered fresh, and consumers said that it would be pokable when poked, and the USDA was like "ok, cool. whatevs." This is apparently how food labeling laws are made.