Thursday, May 24, 2012

Fresh Never Frozen?

As busy as anyone is when starting their own business, when you throw a few hundred animals into the mix, with relentless, weekly slaughter/processing days and trips to the City, animal injuries, predators, new feeding regimens that bring digestive and infrastructure issues, pigs too big, pigs too small, pigs escaping and trotting down the road, chickens too big, chickens too small, something is killing the chickens, killing the thing that killed the chickens (possum), tracking down restaurant clients, setting up distribution sites, major garden expansions in addition to regular spring plantings, plus the we-have-no-money-so-we-do-everything-ourselves state of our infrastructure building -- infrastructure that includes fencing of a few dozen acres and building chutes, pens, waterers and feeders for a herd of almost a hundred hogs, we are very very very busy this Spring. I am trying to stay abreast of things like World Affairs and Writing and Reading for my own Edification/Sanity, and also less lofty things such as hygiene, general house maintenance and eating dinner before midnight, but some things -- like regular communications of any sort -- are indeed falling by the wayside. I am trying my best to not feel guilty about all this (and would like this opportunity to say 'hello!' to all of my sorely neglected friends and family who have not made it to the farm yet this Spring, and thus, have not heard from me.  I do still like you, and when you do come to visit, please ignore the dirty floors.) but, alas, I feel guilty nonetheless. Here is a picture to make us all feel better.

Chilly Piglets, now weaned but still indoors, like to watch the barn goings-on.
Now that all of this busy-ness is starting to really produce meat in somewhat of an overwhelming capacity, we are thankfully beginning to encounter lots of customers, and it is interesting to see what consumers look for in meat. Most of what we hear from consumers is incredibly gratifying -- I will never tire of hearing our customers rave about the superior quality of our product, but some conversations about what we do serve only to show how disconnected people are from the origins of their food -- like the younger folks who are unable to make the connection between ham and a pig or the folks who just never thought to realize that one cannot possibly buy a fresh, local, pastured chicken in January. Which leads to one of the observations that, for us, is somewhat troubling: the widespread and strong preference for fresh meat over frozen meat. This makes some sense -- why people eschew frozen meat is probably a combination of bad past experiences, the intimidation of thawing, the fact that "fresh" just sounds so much better, and the ability of the large-scale industrial animal production-distribution monolith to provide "fresh never frozen" meat to shelves near you with the relentlessness of a team of hungry spiders --  but it is nonetheless problematic for us and other small farmers who raise meat on pasture and lack a nationwide distribution system or regular large buyers, and therefore rely on freezers to keep meat on hand.

Very fresh chickens in early April grass.
Big Man and I visit the large-scale industrial food distribution center known as the grocery store every few weeks, and more often than not we linger morosely in the meat section to stare in dismay at the prices and labeling of what we find there. The pork is cheaper per pound than just the butchering fees that we have to pay to sell by the cut. The sausages are sometimes cheaper than the cost of casings and spices, let alone the meat itself. The chickens are priced at half what it would cost for us to buy a chick and slaughter it at one day old. And, of course, there is the "fresh never frozen!" label sneering at us, and the other adjectives that subconsciously travel with "fresh" -- wholesome, healthy, local, real, clean, delicious, natural, juicy -- trip along on its heels to make the meat attractive to the consumer.

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.

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