As a follow up to my post on Whole Foods and organic food yesterday as well as my article in the Wall Street Journal, I bring you this anecdote:
After my interview with Katy McLaughlin from the WSJ, I was curious as to whether I could find Prime Beef at other establishments. The first place that came to mind was Whole Foods Market. They’re known for their expensive, locally grown, organic food. I figured if I could find an expensive cut of meet like Prime anywhere, it would be there.
So that Saturday I went to Whole Foods and I talked to the butcher. I don’t know if they keep their “second string” butchers on duty on Saturdays, or what was going on, but this guy and his compatriot did not know their meat. The conversation went something like this:
Me: Hello, I was wondering what grade your meat is.
Butcher 1: What grade?
Me: Yeah, like the USDA grade?
Butcher 1: What do you mean?
Me: Like, Select, Choice, Prime?
Butcher 1: Select Choice or Prime? Hmm…not sure. (Notice he thought “Select Choice” was one kind of meat, not two.)
*Calls to other butcher
Butcher 1: Hey, what USDA grade is our beef? Select Choice or Prime?
*Butcher 2 walks over.
Butcher 2: Well, you have to look at it.
Me: You have to look at it? What do you mean?
Butcher 2: Well, it’s all based on marbling, so you just have to look at it.
*He picks up a piece of Ribeye (my favorite).
Butcher 2: See, this looks like a piece of Choice. Look at all that marbling.
Me: Oh…uh-huh. (What the heck is he talking about?)
*Butcher 2 picks up another piece of meat.
Butcher 2: And see, this piece looks more like Select.
Me: Got it. Do you ever get Prime?
Butcher 2: Yeah, it depends on what is shipped to us.
*Points to another piece of meat.
Butcher 2: But this piece looks like Prime.
Me: Oh really?
Butcher 2: Yeah. See, we usually only carry Select, Choice and Prime.
Me: Ahh…I see. So if it’s not here, can I special order it?
Butcher 2: Yeah, of course!
Me: OK. Thanks for your time. Bye
I walked away shaking my head. In case you don’t know why, I’d suggest reading my prior post from when I found the Prime beef. It details all the differences. First of all, I can’t believe the first butcher didn’t know what USDA meat grades were. Unless he’s not from here, which I’d say is highly unlikely, he really can’t call himself a butcher if he doesn’t know about USDA grades.
Second, one can’t just “tell” what USDA grade a piece of meat is. It’s professionally graded by official USDA meat graders. Their job is to look at a beef carcass and determine what grade the entire cow is. It’s not on a steak by steak basis. The entire animal is graded.
Third, unless you’re a maker of processed meat, the only grades of meat available to you are Select, Choice and Prime. Below that, you have Utility, Cutter, and Canner. As this USDA page indicates:
Utility, Cutter, and Canner grades are seldom, if ever, sold at retail but are used instead to make ground beef and processed products.
In other words, it’s inane to claim that you usually have Select, Choice, and Prime if you’re a (theoretically) upscale butcher like Whole Foods. That would be like a geometry teacher claiming “We only cover polygons with more than 3 sides in this class.” Of course you do! Because if a “shape” had less than 3 sides, it wouldn’t be a polygon. Ridiculous!
In any case, I hope you get two takeaways from this:
- A good laugh. It was pretty funny to me.
- A lesson that you need to have a good butcher, and a good relationship with said butcher. Beware of butchers who will sell you a $25 ribeye or a $35 filet mignon and have no idea what grade it is.