Saturday, July 14, 2012

Truthiness in Labeling

Ground sirloin (foreground) and chuck roast (upper left) at Martin's
 When it comes to hamburgers, I ask the butcher to grind meat to order for me. It's not that I don't think the pre-ground meat at a good butcher shop isn't good -- it usually is. (I'm always a bit more suspect of the pre-ground meats I find at supermarkets, especially if it's ground off-site by a larger processor.)

I ask for grinding to order because I prefer chuck rather than round and/or sirloin, or the less desirable cuts found in "hamburger". I think the flavor of meat ground from the chuck far superior to others. And since I prefer my burgers cooked very rare, I don't want the meat sitting around, even for less than a day, after grinding, giving any bacteria a chance to multiply.

Usually I ask Charles Giunta to grind up chuck for me at the Reading Terminal Market. But earlier this week when I stopped by Charles was busy and said I'd have to wait about an hour until he had a chance. Since my meter was just about expired, I thanked him and went to his brother's shop, Martin's Quality Meats.

When I asked the counterman for chuck, he tried to steer me (pun intentional) to the "ground sirloin" on display, priced at $2.99 a pound vs. the $4.59 I'd pay for chuck. "It's chuck, too," he said.

I suggested he look at his butcher's chart: sirloin comes from the back end of the animal, chuck from the shoulder. Either the ground meat was chuck and it was wrongly labelled, or he was fibbing. And I doubted it was chuck because if it was, he wouldn't be selling it for $1.60 less a pound that unground chuck, even accounting for the extra fat that's usually thrown into ground meat.

"I'm just trying to save you money," he said. I thanked him for the consideration, but said I preferred chuck and am willing to pay for it. He finally relented and ground a hunk of chuck roast to order -- I asked him to de-bone a piece of short rib and throw that into the grinder as well to provide a bit more fat as well as flavor.

I wound up with a bit over two pounds of ground meat for a bit over $11, enough for seven five-ounce burgers (I don't like behemoth burgers, like the half-pounders you tend to find at too many pubs). They were tasty and good. But I still had a bad taste in my mouth from the buying experience.

I don't know why the counterman tried to get me to buy the ground sirloin, other than his stated reason of trying to save me a buck or two. Maybe he simply didn't want to take the time to run it through the grinder, though there weren't many customers and his co-workers could easily handle others while he was tied up serving me.

This is hardly the only example of unclear or downright untruthful labeling to be found.

I've written before about the loosey-goosey nomenclature for salmon. John Yi at the Reading Terminal continues to sell "Wild Organic King Salmon". What that really means is that it's farm-raised king which had been fed "organic" feed.

Since it's Alaskan salmon season I had a hankering today for king (also known as chinook) salmon. Over at John Yi's they had "Wild King Salmon" at $17.99/pound, a relative bargain. But when I asked where it was from I was told it was New Zealand.

There's no such thing as a commercial king salmon fishery in New Zealand. There is, however, a substantial farm-raised king industry; indeed, New Zealand is the world's largest producer of this product. I don't have any qualm about the quality of the product; my issue is misleading labelling by retailers.

(There is some "wild" sea-run king salmon in New Zealand, but it's not fished commercially. It was brought to Kiwiland in the late 19th century in form of eggs from California kings in an attempt to establish the species there as a sport fishery.)

At the Reading Terminal Market Yi's and Golden Fish do have truly wild Alaskan salmon right now: sockeye priced at about $14 a pound; it's also an excellent fish like truly wild king, but it has a slightly different flavor profile and the filets are considerably thinner.

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