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Who really cares about the leanness of ground beef?

September 27, 2019

I got a question from a customer last week - what is the fat content in your ground beef? She wanted to make sure it was lean enough to feed to cats. This really got me thinking. 

Why and how do we even know the fat content of ground beef, and should we care? Let’s dive a little deeper.

First, let’s make sure we all know what ground beef is. 

Ground beef is typically made from the trimmings or leftover bits when a cow is (or many cows are) butchered. It’s put through a grinder and - voila - ground beef! 

Pretty simple, right? Oh, but modern consumerism can make this so much more complicated.

I’m sure you’ve noticed the “types” of ground beef found on supermarket labels. 

There’s source ground meat. “Ground chuck” is only made with chuck trimmings, “ground round” is only made with trimmings from the round section of the cow, and “ground sirloin”... well, you get the point. 

Then there’s general ground meat. “Ground beef” is made from trimmings of the whole cow. And “hamburger” is the trimmings with added fat.

And, I’m sure you’ve also noticed the “% lean / % fat” descriptor sometimes included on the label. 

The USDA does not require this. It is 100% voluntary. However, customers have gotten so accustomed to this label since its introduction about 25 years ago.

But, here’s the catch. There is no regulatory requirement that defines how the company needs to support its label. There’s no standard process for this.

From what I’ve read, there are a few ways to figure out the fat content of meat:

  1. Look at the meat and estimate how much red vs. white is in the ground meat.
  2. Cook the meat and separate the fat/water. Once the fat solidifies, weigh each portion.
  3. Cook a portion of the meat in a lab and strain off the liquid. Use a digital fat tester to find out the fat content. 
  4. Use a super high tech electronic and/or sonar device that measures the density of fat or lean in each batch.

Well, here’s another catch. There’s also no requirement to test each batch for fat content. 

If they have a consistent process, they could write into their plan that they periodically verify compliance with the label standard. A consistent process would mean the same farm, same breed of cows, same lifestyle, and same processing flow. 

This is kind of crazy. Just like humans, cows are genetically inclined to be fatter or leaner. Even with the same diet and lifestyle, you can have different animals of the same breed with different fat contents.

And here’s yet another catch. If a processor is not sure of the lean/fat percentage of a ground or chopped product, the USDA allows processors to label it with a “worse” lean and fat percentage. 

So for, example, a processor could label ground beef that is actually 80% lean and 20% fat with a “70% lean / 30% fat” label.

Is it just me? It seems that this whole “% lean / % fat” labeling is a hoax. Why even put the fat content on anyway?

I think companies do it for marketing and price scaling purposes. No surprises there. It’s so companies can get people to pay more by thinking they’re choosing a superior ground beef. 

If you believe in the mainstream low-fat diet, a “ground sirloin” that’s “90% lean / 10 % fat” sounds good for $4 more per pound. The company makes more profit on basically the same product. And price hunting customers think they’re getting a deal on “ground beef” that’s “70% lean / 30% fat” that’s $4 less per pound. The company makes money by selling more ground beef. 

I spoke with the farmer about this. He does not put the lean/fat percentage on his ground beef and does not make source ground meat. It’s just not necessary and, honestly, it’s inaccurate. It’s just ground beef.

What makes the farmer’s ground beef superior is the way the cows are raised. They are 100% grass-fed (no grain, ever). They live an active lifestyle at pasture. They are never fed GMOs or given antibiotics, hormones, or anything synthetic. And, they are slaughtered as humanely as possible, with minimal time spent alive at the processor.

So, what do you think? Do you need to know the fat content of your meat? What do you look for when buying ground beef?

Marie Reedell

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