Locals can gain confidence when buying ground beef

Controversy and customer concerns over "pink slime" beef are the perfect illustrator, according to some local grocers, of the murkiness involved in mainstream meat processing.

"It's just something that kind of caught everybody off guard," said Bob Ames, general manager for Sherm's Markets Inc. of Medford.

Sherm's spent last week fielding questions about the government-approved but recently disparaged "lean finely textured beef." The company that owns Sherm's Thunderbird and Food 4 Less initially couldn't provide many answers except to say that beef ground in its own meat departments is pink slime-free. But how much ground beef supplied by large distributors that made it to Sherm's shelves remained unclear.

"We can't guarantee that it's not in some of the grind," said Ames.

Although Sherm's didn't deal directly with pink-slime producer Beef Products Inc. based in South Dakota, it needed to determine whether any of its suppliers did. By midweek, Sherm's had confirmed that its distributor, Tyson Fresh Meats, would no longer be doing business with BPI.

"When we get our new supply in, it will not have any," said Ames. "It should be a pretty quick process to sell through."

However, Ames couldn't give an exact time line on how quickly suspect beef would exit stores Sherm's owns in Medford, Klamath Falls and Roseburg, except to say it likely would be a matter of weeks. Customers who want to be sure they're not purchasing pink slime, he said, should ask their meat-department manager.

Meanwhile, there are several other, local options that can restore consumer confidence. Any ground beef certified organic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture cannot contain pink slime. Experts warn against trusting "all-natural" claims associated with beef or any meat. Because the term is unregulated, it has no verifiable standards behind it.

But just because a meat is organic doesn't mean it's the best product, said Annie Hoy, Ashland Food Co-op's manager of outreach and owner services. The co-op's ground beef is not certified-organic, but the store can attest to every aspect of the cows' lives, from birth at Emerald Hills, a small Riddle ranch to slaughter at Mohawk Valley Meats in Springfield. In between, the animals eat only grass.

"We know everything about them," said Hoy.

Co-op owners believe the entire process yields not only superior quality, she said, but is humane and sustainable. Whole carcasses — about three and a half per week, are delivered to the co-op — which does all its own cutting and grinding, producing ground sirloin with 7 percent fat and extra-lean beef with no more than 15 percent fat, said Hoy.

"It has been ground that day."

Ground beef purchased directly from farmers who can answer any and all customer questions is looking better and better, said local-food advocates. Local growers markets have more and more meat merchants, some of whom sell meat raised no more than 100 miles from Medford through Rogue Valley Local Foods, an online market managed by the nonprofit THRIVE.

"That rancher chooses which cuts to make into hamburger and chooses the fat percentage," said Wendy Siporen, THRIVE's executive director. "It's not commingled with anybody else's animals."

News that 70 percent of ground beef sold at nationwide supermarket chains and up to 25 percent of each American hamburger patty contained pink slime came as no surprise to Hoy. She cited one study showing a single, mainstream hamburger patty contained DNA from 400 individual animals.

"You're getting it from one cow," she said of the co-op's beef. "Not 400."

Reach Food Editor Sarah Lemon at 541-776-4487 or email slemon@mailtribune.com.

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