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Meat Matters: The Ins and Outs of Ordering Beef Online

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By Mitch Lipka, dealnews Consumer Advocate

It's grilling season and, for the carnivores out there, it's time to start about thinking meat. Whether you've been inspired by a cooking show or motivated by some philosophical reason, if you're looking for super-premium meat (not easy to find in some cities) or want a wide range of organic choices, you'll find abundant options online.

But how do you choose where you're going to make this purchase so that it's safe? And how do you decipher some of the buzzwords you'll encounter along the way: Waygu, Kobe, grass-fed, certified organic, lean, humane? If you're going to pay, you ought to know what you're going to get.

What's Your Grade?
Most importantly, when buying specialty meat — online or at a butcher — there's going to be a premium attached, so you want to make sure you're actually getting premium meat. The U.S. Department of Agriculture grades meat; making sure it's safe is a requirement. And getting a quality grade is something producers pay extra for.

  • Prime is the top grade — typically what good restaurants will serve. It should have abundant marbling (fat laced throughout the meat) and come from "young, well-fed cattle." Marbling tends to produce a more flavorful result as the fat breaks down and keeps the meat tender.
  • A notch down is Choice, which will have less marbling, but can still produce a good result. although it will be less forgiving to overcooking.
  • Select is a notch below and tends to be leaner — which means it's harder to get a good result when cooked on the dry heat of a grill — and is typically what you'll find in grocery stores at a lower price.

You can, of course, get a full selection of meats at the widely-known Omaha Steaks, but the grades aren't listed in the product descriptions, so you'll have to call to check. If you specifically want prime beef, you can search for it at merchants like Costco, Williams-Sonoma, Kansas City Steaks and Amazon. You'll also be able to get Choice cuts from Costco and Amazon, but you will have a hard time finding Select available for mail order.

What about Waygu and Kobe? These are two Japanese breeds of beef known for being extraordinarily tender. And you're going to pay for the privilege of experiencing them.

Waygu typically is imported from Japan, Australia or New Zealand where there are large Waygu herds, but it can also be purchased from U.S. breeders. There has been some cross-breeding of Waygu cattle here, creating a hybrid that produces cattle more able to tolerate the weather and with a meat color more typical of what U.S. consumers are used to seeing. Their meat is known as American Style Waygu. Traditional Waygu beef is fattier and has a whiter appearance. There are strict rules about what can be called Waygu.

What does it cost? You can get a value pack of 24 9.5 oz. D'Artagnan American Wagyu Beef Patties from Costco for $159.99 with free shipping.

Kobe beef, best known as the product of cattle that are massaged to help produce a special level of tenderness, also must meet strict breeding standards. Like Waygu, Kobe is highly marbled and also has been crossbred in the U.S. with Angus cattle. That meat is known as Kobe-style. There is some debate as to whether U.S. raised Kobe and the hybrids, which receive a different type of feed than at the traditional Japanese farm are of the same quality. U.S. producers argue the differences are just cosmetic.

Costco also offers 12 oz. Kobe style strip steaks in a 6-pack for $319.99 with free shipping.

What about "Organic?"
The USDA offers organic certification that is optional, but does give credibility to the product. When buying organic, you're paying for a product that is made without antibiotics or growth hormones and is generally fed from pesticide-free feed. The USDA Organic seal requires that at least 95% of what you're buying is organically sourced. There is a high level that notes if a product is 100% organic.

You can get package deals for certified organic meat from purveyors like LocalHarvest.org, which offers a 15 lb. selection of steak and roasts for $208.16. Places like Niman Ranch, Tallgrass Beef, Grassland Beef and Alderspring Ranch all tout their grass-fed beef selections that can be shipped nationally.

But if you see the words "Natural" or "Healthy" — those are marketing terms and have no legal definition.

When looking at ground meat, the terms "lean" and "extra lean" have legal definitions. And generally mean they'll have less than 10 grams of fat and 5 grams of fat out of 100 grams, respectively.

"Certified Humane" is a label claim supported by non-profit groups promoting the humane treatment of animals. To get that label, the animals cannot receive growth hormones or antibiotics and they cannot have lived in cages, crates, or stalls — among other rules. The a list of online sellers spans the country, and includes the chain Fresh Direct.

Also, be sure to check out the meat seller before you buy. Do a Google search and see if people have been complaining. Look for a site with a good track record and no groundswell of upset customers.

Ground Beef Concerns
Ground beef, in particular, causes many consumers worry. Omaha Steaks, for one, has a notice on all its ground beef products that says it irradiates the meat and gives suggested cooking temperatures.

To avoid getting sick from the meat, keep it frozen or store it at a temperature below 40 degrees (for 1-2 days) and cook it to a temperature above 160 degrees — the level at which dangerous bacteria will be destroyed. When you receive a meat delivery, make sure if you ordered frozen meat that it is still frozen and do likewise with refrigerated meat. If it arrives in a different state, immediately contact the seller to report that the meat was not an acceptable condition.

Major online meat sellers typically offer guarantees to allay concerns that consumers are out of luck if the meat doesn't show up in good shape. Pay close attention to the guarantees and the shipping charges, which can be costly because the products are perishable and typically come in bulky packaging.


Mitch Lipka is an investigative journalist for consumer issues who formerly wrote for WalletPop.com, Consumer Reports, thePhiladelphia Inquirer and the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel,among other places. Follow him on Twitter — @mitchlipka or on Facebook. You can also sign up for an e-mail alert for alldealnews features.
Please note that, although prices sometimes fluctuate or expire unexpectedly, all products and deals mentioned in this feature were available at the lowest total price we could find at the time of publication (unless otherwise specified).
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2 comments
tdragone
I'm pretty sure this needs to be modified...
"When looking at ground meat, the terms "lean" and "extra lean" have legal definitions. And generally mean they'll have less than 10 grams of fat and 5 grams of fat, respectively"

The measurements for Lean and extra lean are percentages, not grams. Lean is 90% meat 10% fat, Extra Lean is a 95/5 ratio.
wwwparker
Unlike poultry or pork, bacteria rarely flourish in the interior of red meat. Instead it spreads on the surface. When you subject red meat to a grinder, not only are you introducing the meat to another medium from which it could become contaminated, you also vastly increase the surface area on which bacteria can grow. You could probably eat a raw steak and not get sick, but make sure you cook that ground beef.
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