Friday, March 28, 2014

Where's the beef in Clear Lake?

Have you ever had this happen to you?  I bet you have.  You spend a whole bunch of time and energy searching for a particular grocery item that you like and that fits your needs, only to see it either disappear from the grocery store shelves, or get replaced with a different product that doesn't work for you.
That's the ongoing story of me and beef.  I started out a few years ago using local producer Georgia's (which was available at Erma's in Nassau Bay and also at the Clear Lake Shores Farmers Market), but I found (in my opinion) that their quality really tanked to the point where it was no longer worth purchasing (perhaps that had something to do with the untimely passing of Georgia herself).

 I then switched to the Strauss brand which is pictured above, and which offered a very special qualification.  
It was grass fed AND grass finished.  
That may seem like a minor semantic point, but it's actually not.  Much of the so-called "grass fed" beef that's on the market is actually "corn-finished".  In other words, the producers let the beeves graze on grass, but then they do the final fattening up for market by stuffing them full of corn.  The result is beef that tastes like it was corn-fed for the duration of its life, for which you (lucky sucker that you are) pay a substantial grass-fed premium.

To which I say, no thanks - not at an average of about nine bucks a pound for ground beef.  This effective bait-and-switch practice is widespread, and I suspect it's because the grass-fed grass-finished producers are having trouble meating the market (pun intended) due to high demand.  Retailers such as Whole Foods may extol the virtues of grass-fed beef, but at times I've walked into their stores, tasted samples prepared by in-store chefs, and said, "That's corn-finished, isn't it?"  And they've had to admit that it is.

It's easy to taste the difference.  Because so much American beef is produced on feedlots, by this time most Americans don't even know what "real" beef is supposed to taste like any more.  But if you sample the two side by side (grass finished and grain finished), you'll immediately get it.  You might suspect that you're tasting two different species.

Anyway, you can imagine my dismay when I walked into HEB Bay Colony the other day and found no Strauss ground beef on the shelf.  Upon questioning the butcher staff, I was told that Strauss negotiated a re-branding with HEB, and that Strauss ground beef will now be sold under the HEB label.

There's currently nothing on HEB's meat page about this, however, and I was skeptical.  The butchers also pointed out that there was another grass-fed brand on the shelf, that being Panorama.
Here are the two of them.  
There was a problem, however.  Neither one of them specified that all-important parameter of grass-finished.
This is a close-up of the HEB brand.  This label would seem to contradict itself.  "Grass fed" and "Vegetarian fed" are not the same thing.  

The Panorama label just said "grass fed", with no elaboration.  
I was able to call up Panorama's web page on my telephone while I was still in the HEB.  Even though the label on the product is ambiguous, the web page is explicit:
Screengrabbed from this site.  
So I had confidence in purchasing the Panorama product.  However, just to make things interesting, I decided to do a taste test, so I bought a pound of each.
I made the Panorama burgers round, and the HEB a bit oblong, so that I could tell them apart post-barbecuing.  
There was no detectable difference in any of the physical qualities of the brands.  The Panorama are on the right, and the HEB are on the left.  
Here's what I can conclude about this experiment:

  • I found both brands to be higher than average quality (better than feedlot).
  • Both brands did indeed taste like grass-finished beef.
  • There was no substantial taste difference between the two.  I had a weak preference for the HEB, and my husband and daughter each had a weak preference for the Panorama.

Unless there's further information to be forthcoming on the HEB brand, I'll probably keep buying the Panorama, simply because they are explicit on their website about how they are raising their animals.  The problem with a store-branded product is that you can never be sure how many sources are feeding into that label.  So while my first package of HEB Organics ground beef was worth the money, I don't know if the next one would be on par.

It's an important question - I often buy $40 of ground beef at a time, so I don't want to get stuck with substandard quality.  You can't tell the quality until after you've cooked it, and it's a bit hard to return it to the store after it's already entrained in twelve quarts of home-made spaghetti sauce.  If I buy the wrong stuff, not only will I have wasted forty bucks, but it will also seriously degrade the dish that it goes into.  Been there (with Georgia's), done that, don't plan to make the same mistake again.

I don't know if either of these brands are available at any of the other local HEB stores, but good luck with your shopping if you're a grass-finished aficionado like myself.

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