When Frozen is Fresher

The phone rings.

“Farmstead Creamery, this is Laura,” I answer cheerily.

“Do you guys have meat?” comes across the line. It sounds like someone is in their car, as I can hear road noise.

“Yes, we do!” and I share the story of our farm and the different types of products that we have. This person wants to know about our farming practices and how the butcher processes the meats, and then they ask, “So, can I get some fresh?”

“All the meats come back to us from the butcher frozen,” I explain. The caller immediately loses interest and soon hangs up. Why?

Perhaps folks like this caller are not aware of the bigger picture of meat production and packaging in our country—from the industrial systems down to small producers like us—and how that impacts their food choices.

Let’s start with the concept of “fresh” meats. Back in the day, with small-town butchers who slaughtered on premises (a practice that is almost non-existent today), you might have been able to buy meats that came from the steer that was butchered yesterday and enjoy it authentically fresh. But as our food system has become ever-more industrialized, animals are slaughtered often states or countries from where you buy your meat. Sides of beef arrive to the supermarket already frozen then made into cuts or ground. So “fresh” for supermarket meats does not mean never-frozen; it means that you are buying thawed product.

Being able to freeze meats revolutionized our country’s abilities to ship, store, and preserve foods in a safe way, a huge step up from previous industry practices that included lethal chemicals like formaldehyde and borax added to foods to keep them “fresh” longer or hide the fact that they were spoiling. To learn more about this and the man who fought to expose these horrors and regulate food additives, read The Poison Squad by Deborah Blum, or watch the PBS American Experience documentary based on the book.

And yet, the desire for the convenience of non-frozen meats continues to drive industry to invent new ways to make meats look fresh longer. Part of how we identify the freshness of meats visually is a rich, pink color. But sliced or ground meats change color with exposure to oxygen, turning an unappetizing brown or gray color. To counteract this phenomenon, grocery store protocol now includes injecting gasses into the packaging that prevent color change. These include carbon dioxide, nitrogen (which creates an almost fluorescent look to the meat and turns into nitrites), and most recently carbon monoxide. Ick!

These gas additives extend shelf life for the product, typically 10-14 days. You then buy this product, and it sits in your fridge…how long? All this sitting out of thawed meat is an invitation for bacteria heyday for the aggressive germs present in the horrific factory living conditions of the animals. 99% of America’s meat comes from factory farms, so that grocery store, super-pink meat is undoubtedly from animals raised in confinement.

Alternately, you can skip this whole chemical and biological mess by purchasing frozen meats from individual, small producers who work with a local butcher. We deliver our animals to the local slaughterhouse just hours before processing time. Our butcher then processes and packs the meats, freezing it in their locker facility to seal in the freshness and stop any potential bacterial activity. When our order is complete, we pick up the yield from our own animals. This is a process we typically must schedule nearly a year in advance.

For the small-scale livestock farmer, offering meats fresh like a grocery store is not practical. The packaging has not been gassed, so the meat will oxidize quickly. And the rotation of having thawed product available for 10-14 days before it needs to be discarded is terribly wasteful. Why not keep it in the freezer, safe from degradation, until you are ready to purchase the exact cut you want? This way, the freshness has been naturally (rather than artificially) locked in. In essence, frozen is actually fresher.

Perhaps the potential client on the phone was looking for the convenience of already thawed meat. Perhaps he was not experienced at successfully or safely thawing meats. So here are four different options:

Thaw in the fridge: Plan ahead and move the package from the freezer to the fridge to defrost. Place the cut into a water-tight container to prevent condensation on or leakage from the package.

Thaw in cold water: In a water-tight container, submerge meat in cold water. The water transfers the temperature difference faster than air. Keeping the water cold helps to keep the meat out of the temperature danger zone while thawing.

Thaw in the microwave: Many modern microwaves now offer a defrost setting. This reduces the strength of the energy being directed at the food, so it thaws the product without cooking it. You may have to pause and flip the meat.

Thaw in the cooking process: This is especially useful for crock pot dinners. You can add all your ingredients into the pot along with the sill frozen meat. Budget more time when cooking to accommodate the meat thawing.

I hope that this week’s story helps to share the real story about “fresh” meat and also helps you feel empowered to make informed choices about how and what you choose to purchase for your family’s table. Time to thaw some heritage pork sausages for breakfast! See you down on the farm sometime.