The meat industry can kiss the carcasses goodbye if consumers don't like the new sleeker meat. So, to see what consumers are in for, we held an informal taste test of a handful of available meats for which claims of lower fat content -- whether in trim, marbling or both -- are made.
We chose cuts that are traditionally fatty -- to see whether less fat makes a difference in flavor and texture. And we followed instructions from producers to cook the meat for a shorter period. Overcooking is a crucial mistake for any piece of meat, more so when it's a lean one.
Although the specifics of the lowfat claims are in a state of confusion (what's being compared to what), and it's unclear as of now how valuable the changes may be, we were generally pleased with some of the meat. They gave off less fat during cooking and when finished, tasted less fatty than their traditional counterparts. Still, they retained a beef flavor.
While most of these meats are presently priced at a premium, when or if learner cattle start taking over the country's feedlots, hopefully the supply will lower the prices.
On the poultry front: Perdue has just introduced a lower-fat chicken. The new birds have 24 percent less fat on the whole bird (the leaf fat -- the fatty undersection at the abdominal opening of the bird that cooks use to render chicken fat has been removed) and 12 percent less fat on the parts. All of Perdue's chickens are being fed a diet lower in fat, and a genetically leaner bird is being used as well. A Perdue spokesperson said the 12 percent figure represents a reduction in fat in the skin as well as the visible fat deposits that accumulate along the thigh and breast.
As for the fresh beef and pork, here's what we found. Some of the products are new, others have been around long before light was "lite."
KEY-Lite Beef. Ground beef was the most promising of the KEY-Lite samples we tried. The patty didn't take long to cook, didn't give off much in the way of grease, and had a meaty flavor superior to standard supermarket ground beef.
Other samples, of strip steak and tenderloin, were likewise promising and indeed tasted less fatty than their traditional counterparts. When cooked to rare, this is high-quality beef -- the sort you might be served in a top-notch steakhouse.
The warnings were accurate: this type of meat suffers from overcooking. When cooked to a medium state, the meat was drier and coarser than traditional meats cooked to medium. (Stew beef, however, cooked by standard recipe instructions, didn't seem to suffer from long cooking. The result was a tender and delicious beef pot pie.)
Robert Finklea, spokesperson for Chianina Lite Beef Inc., the Hereford, Tex., company that will be marketing KEY-Lite Beef, said that all cooking times of all cuts of the meats should be cut by about 25 percent.
According to Gordon Davis, a professor of animal science at Texas Tech University and a principal investigator in the research to develop the Chianina breed, the product should be available on the retail level by late spring.
Finklea said that test marketing of the product is tentatively planned for the Southwest, and that it will probably be available through direct mail simultaneously. Finklea estimated that KEY-Lite Beef should move into major market areas within two years. Specific consumer prices have not yet been determined, but it will be a premium-priced product, Finklea said.
Swift Light Pork: Lean breeding and close trimming should be mandatory for all U.S. hogs if they end up tasting like this.
Our loin chop sample was similar to traditional high-quality pork that tends to taste less fatty than less expensive cuts or those ribbed with fat. Delicate in taste, Swift's new product has a milky white interior when cooked, comparable to milk-fed veal. It's pretty, nonfatty tasting and clearly a top quality meat.
It is currently sold in more than a dozen cities and throughout Georgia and Alabama, and Swift spokesman Bill Dillman said "chances are good" that it will appear in Washington soon. Dillman would not divulge where or when that might occur, but said that some chains have "expressed interest" in the product. Dillman added that it is a premium-priced product.
Coordinated Biofarm Systems: The force behind this locally raised beef is Gwynn Garnett. Sold to health food stores and restaurants such as Nora and the Tabard Inn, Garnett's beef, lamb and pork are all raised on an additive- and hormone-free diet that consists, in part, of seafood and seat salt. Garnett's lower fat cattle or a three-way crossbreed, he says. And he raises bulls, not steers, because he says that bulls are better at turning feed into meat than steers, who turn more feed into fat.
Although Garnett makes no specific claims about the amount of fat his meat contains, he states that both the marbling and cover fat in his beef, lamb and pork are less than traditional cuts.
Clearly, though, this meat is more geared to those concerned about hormones and antibiotic residues in meat than fat. During cooking, Garnett's ground beef, ground lamb, sausage patties and delmonico steak leached a sizable amount of grease (at least more than some of the other brands we sampled) and had a fatty mouth feel not unlike other supermarket meat.
The pork sausage had a wonderful taste, but one wonders whether it is actually lower in fat. Likewise, the delmonico steak was all the things a great steak should be: tender, juicy and flavorful. While the delmonico is a traditionally fatty cut, it's unclear that this meat tasted any less so than regular meat.
Brae Beef: Beer, garlic, yams and dandelion roots are among the unorthodox feed that Fred Grant, a Connecticut beef breeder, gives to his herd of 3,600 Brae cattle. And what he gets in return, he says, is beef that is not only additive and hormone free, but lower in fat, calories and cholesterol. It is also miraculously good.
Grant also claims that his Brae ground beef is about 3 percent fat, which is an extremely low percentage compared to the learn ground beef found in the marketplace, according to Ron Brewington, chief of labeling branch of the Food Safety and Inspection Service. Brewington said he is not familiar with Grant's meats, although since Grant is not making any claims on his labels about specific fat content, the agency would not have jurisdiction over it anyway.
Giant's extra lean ground beef ranges from 15 to 18 percent fat, according to Giant's dietitian, Janet Tenney. Tenney said a 3 percent claim seems "pretty unbelievable."
Grant said that four separate tests have substantiated his fat content claims. Two of the tests were performed by paid consultants to his company, he said, and the other two were performed by outside outfits that didn't believe the claims -- at least before they conducted their own tests.
What gives Brae beef its juiciness, Grant says, the amount of blood in the meat -- 35 percent more than standard beef. Indeed, the meat does have a deep red appearance.
As for the taste, our samples of ground chuck, New York strip and filet mignon had a decidely different taste than corn-raised, fattier beef, while retaining tenderness and juiciness. Whatever the specifics of Grant's claims, his beef indeed does taste lower in fat; it doesn't leave a heavy aftertaste or feeling in the stomach that one often finds after eating a portion of red meat. It is a high quality product -- perhaps the best of the entire tasting.
The ground chuck was the most unusual in taste and texture of the Brae beef we tested. Slightly higher in fat than the Brae ground beef, according to Grant, it was very soft in text and tasted almost as if it had been very finely ground or mashed. Of all the samples tasted, the chuck had the most grassy taste, too,, a characteristic often noticed in grass-fed cattle. For some, lowfat ground chuck will take more getting used to than other cuts. The New York strip tasted more like a filet. Soft and melting in texture, its grain ws finer and less fibrous or coarse than traditional New York strips. The flavor was good, though, and clearly had an aged, meaty taste that one generally does not find in standard supermarket meats.
The filet was so soft it tasted as if it had been tenderized. Some beef eaters may find this an advantage, others may not.
Because the meats are lower in fat and high in moisture, they cook at least 20 percent faster than customary, the company says. Stew cooks in less than 45 minutes (as opposed to 90 minutes or more) and steaks requires about three to five minutes per side, Grant said. The cooking instructions that come with the mail order meats state that Brae beef cooked to medium still retains redness up to the well done point and medium looks rare.
Less fat also costs more money, a lot more money. A trimmed filet goes for $25.95 a pound and our sample of New York strip cost $19.95 a pound. The ground chuck was $2.55 a pound. Grant says the chuck is comparatively less expensive than the other cuts because it's such a good vehicle for getting rid of the trimming. It's "quite a responsibility" to utilize a whole animal, Grant said, although he added that the price of the chuck may soon go up to $5 a pound.
Brae Beef is available through a small shop in Stamford, Conn., as well as via direct mail. Grant said he sells to about 10,000 clients nationwide, including corporations, restaurants and individuals.
Tuscarora Valley Beef Farm: Another local concern, this one is headed by J. Frank Koenig, who has recently started producing ground chicken sausages. He also sells a full line of additive- and hormone-free meat products to local health food stores such as Hugo's and the Wheat and Meat Retreat in Gaithersburg.
Koenig said that his cattle are fed corn, although they do not receive the same quantities that traditional cattle are fed to get fattened. Koenig claims that his meat has the percentage of leanness comparable to a USDA standard grade (below a good), but that it has the taste of prime or choice.
We don't exactly agree on the latter point. Our samples of Tuscarora's ground beef, porterhouse and rib eye steaks were consistently inferior to the other lower fat meat products. None of the samples we tasted had much of a beef flavor and there was a noticeable amount of grease left when we finished the samples.