Since 1910, the first year that statistics were compiled, Americans have been eating an average of 60 pounds of beef yearly. USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service inspected about 36 million cattle in 1997 alone. This translates into 64 pounds of beef per person in 1997. In calls to the Hotline, beef is the third food category (behind turkey and chicken) callers most ask about.
What is Beef?
The domestication of cattle for food dates to about 6500 B.C. in the Middle East. Cattle was not native to America, but brought to the New World on ships by European colonists. Americans weren’t big meat eaters of fresh beef until 1870, due to the enormous growth of the cattle industry in the West. The introduction of cattle cars and refrigerated cars on the railroad facilitated distribution of beef.
“Beef” is meat from full-grown cattle about 2 years old. A live steer weights about 1,000 pounds and yields about 450 pounds of edible meat. There are at least 50 breeds of beef cattle, but fewer than 19 make up most cattle produced. Some major breeds are Angus, Hereford, Charolais and Brahman.
“Baby beef” and “calf” are 2 interchangeable terms used to describe young cattle weighing about 700 pounds that have been raised mainly on milk and grass. The meat cuts from baby beef are smaller; the meat is light red and contains less fat than beef. The fat may have a yellow tint due to the vitamin A in the grass.
“Veal” is meat from a calf that weighs about 150 pounds. Those that are mainly milk-fed usually are less than 3 months old. The difference between “veal” and “calf” is based on the color of their meat, which is determined almost entirely by diet. Veal is pale pink and contains more cholesterol than beef.
How is Cattle Raised?
All cattle start out eating grass; three-fourths of them are “finished” (grown to maturity) in feedlots where they are fed specially formulated feed based on corn and other grains.
How is Beef Inspected?
All beef found in retails stores is either USDA inspected for wholesomeness or inspected by state systems that have standards equal to the Federal government. Each steer and its internal organs are inspected for signs of disease. The “Passed and Inspected by USDA” seal insures the beef is wholesome and free from disease.
What Does the Grade Mean?
Inspection is mandatory; grading is voluntary and a plant pays to have its meat graded. USDA-graded beef sold at the retail level is prime, Choice and select. Lower grades (Standard, Commercial, Utility, Cutter and Canner) are mainly ground or used in processed meat products. Retail stores may use other terms that must be different from USDA grades.
USDA Prime beef (about 2 percent of graded beef) has fatter marbling, so it is the most tender and flavorful. However, it is highest in fat content. Most of the graded beef sold in supermarkets is USDA Choice or USDA Select. The protein, vitamin and mineral content of beef are similar regardless of the grade.
Nutrition data on beef can be found in the USDA Agricultural Research Service’s composition Database at www.nal.usda.gov/fnic/foodcomp/index.html
Nutrition claims such as “lean” and “extra lean” are sometimes seen on beef products. Here are their definitions:
“Lean” -- 100 grams of beef with less than 10 grams of fat, 4.5 grams or less of saturated fat, and less than 95 milligrams of cholesterol.
“Extra Lean” -- 100 grams of beef with less than 5 grams of fat, less than 2 grams of saturated fat, and less than 95 milligrams of cholesterol.
What does Natural Mean?
All fresh meat qualifies as “natural.” Products labeled “natural” cannot contain any artificial flavor or flavoring, coloring ingredients, chemical preservatives, or any other artificial or synthetic ingredients; and the product and its ingredients are not more than minimally processed (ground, for example). All products claiming to be natural should be accompanied by a brief statement that explains what is meant by the term “natural.”
Foodborne Organisms Associated With Beef
There are many organisms (E. coli, Salmonella, Staphylococcus aureus and Listeria) that may be present in or on raw beef. If ingested these organisms can cause serious illness. Through cooking of your beef will destroy these microorganisms.
For safety the USDA recommends cooking hamburgers and ground beef mixtures such as meat loaf to 160°F. Whole muscle meat such as steaks and roasts may be cooked to 145°F (medium rare) 160°F (medium), 170°F (well done). Outdoor grills and appliances can vary in heat so a meat thermometer should always be used to check for save cooking and doneness of beef.
How to Handle Beef Safely
Raw Beef. Select beef just before checking out at the register. Put packages of raw beef in disposable plastic bags, if available, to contain any leakage which could cross-contaminate cooked foods or produce. Beef a perishable product. It is kept cold during store distribution to retard the growth of bacteria.
Take beef home immediately and refrigerate at 40°F; use within 3 to 5 days. If continuously frozen it will be safe indefinitely.13