What's in that Burger? The Story of the Lost American Butcher Shop

From its disputed origin somewhere in the central USA to its upscale rebirth in gastropubs and fine dining rooms all across the country and world, it's no lazy cliché to claim the hamburger iconically represents the American culinary story. As America is the world's leading producer of beef, it's no surprise we find ourselves with a great deal of beef protein in forms other than the ribeye or tenderloin, and hamburger beef provides a convenient use for trimmings otherwise unwanted by restaurants or retail customers.

The grinding process makes something of nothing. Many useful but disunited portions of an animal ground down into communal pool are shaped into a patty which ultimately gives the illusion of having a singular origin. For processors fighting to make ends meet in pre-war America, this was a tool against waste and a cushion for the bottom line. In those days prior to mobile refrigeration, restaurants and butchers purchased beef by the side and processed those half-cows in house, forced to purchase and make use for muscles they may not need. 

With the birth of reliable mobile refrigeration and the growth of large slaughter plants, so grew the pool of unwanted trimmings ready to be ground down and sold rather than thrown away. But what happens when the same utilitarian concept – take the unusable parts of a cow and make them usable – is applied to trimmings from several cows? What if, as became a reality in the post-war years, several hundred cattle were contributing to the same pool of ground beef?

As explained by Patrick Boyle, CEO of the American Meat Institute, as part an expansive PBS study of the modern meat industry, the end of World War II brought about the rise of chain grocery stores as a streamlined replacement to family-owned butchers. At the same time, refined refrigeration technology allowed one central processing plant to break down thousands of cattle to be sold by the steak to restaurants hundreds of miles away. Before steaks could be reliably truck-refrigerated, cattle had to be harvested relatively close to their restaurant buyers, with those restaurants then forced to purchase and process entire sides of beef and make use of each part, or face losses to waste. 

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On the economic surface, everybody wins. Processors can expand margins by centralizing the slaughter market, restaurants don't have to buy anything they don't need, and the reduced cost makes its way to the consumer, allowing Americans to spend less of their income on food than any other country. But the PBS focuses on the issue of just how many cattle we are talking about when we talk about centralizing the slaughter market. Dr. Robert Tauxe of the CDC, when asked how many cows might contribute to a single burger, says he "[suspects] there are hundreds or even thousands of animals that have contributed to a single hamburger."

Beyond this just seeming gross to the unsuspecting public, centralization brings about a nightmare of disease prevention. Dr. Tauxe explains in the age prior to large processing plants, a food poisoning incident was unlikely to reach beyond the attendees of a church gathering or wedding; everyone at the party, but no one else, got sick. But when a sick cow from, say, Iowa, is forced into a pen with a healthy herd from, say, Texas, with sanitation conditions doing next to nothing to control disease? 

We're now looking at hundreds of sick cattle. And the trimmings from hundreds of sick cattle are thrown into a pool with trimmings from thousands of others. Now, we're not trying identify the sick cow that got the wedding reception sick, which had been raised and killed up the road. We're looking at two people in different parts of the country getting sick from a cow which was itself processed in a further region. It is nearly impossible to track the health and origins a hundred animals in a pound of beef. This, on top of the tightly-packed, disease-prone feedlot populations, doesn't bode well for meat at market. 

For hundreds of years, butcher had a personal relationship with the rancher, and the rancher would sell directly to the butcher. The butcher process single animals, using every last piece from trim to make the best possible ground meat.

Before swearing off burgers for the rest of the summer, know that there is a better way to buy ground beef. Rosso & Flynn sells only single origin ground beef sourced directly from small cottage ranchers in Central Texas. Know your sources and shop locally sourced ground beef. 

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