068 Dan Robert – A History of Meat

A History of Meat

- A History of Meat


This is Episode Three of Season Six, my U.S. Road Trip Part II. In this episode I head down to the National Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans. There I chat with Dan Robert, the curator of Meat Science Programming. Dan was born into a family-owned meat processing and smokehouse business in Louisiana and after earning a degree in Food Science, had a 25 year career with the USFDA, travelling the US and the world inspecting thousands of meat packing plants. In this fascinating interview, I get a lesson in a history of meat in the US and we also get into different meat processing methods from around the world. 


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  •  He’s a native Louisianan and is a 4th generation meat processor
    • The family business lasted 93 years
    • This gave him a deep insight into a history of meat
  • He graduated from LSU and got a food science degree and then did graduate work in meat science at Columbia
  • Got a job with the USDA Meat Inspection Service where he worked for 25 years, where he further developed his knowledge of a history of meat
  • He’s now the Meat Science Programmer at the National Southern Food and Beverage Museum
    • He is the resident expert on a history of meat 
    • He does demos and meat classes
    • He does consulting work with smaller to medium sized meat processing plants
    • Works with flavours, seasoning etc
  • He’s visited over 700 meat processing plants
  • How the meat industry has changed
    • In the 70’s and 80’s they decided they had to lean out the pigs coz they were too fat
    • Now, the pigs aren’t fat enough
    • Lipid fats are flavour
    • Average slaughter weight is 325 pounds, 100 pounds higher than it was in the 70’s and 80’s
  • Flavourings are changing at a faster rate than he’s ever seen
    • ‘Seasoned’ in the South means hot
    • Southerners like layered flavours of seasoning
    • Now northern states like Wisconsin have spicier food than the South
    • He attributes this to the snack food industry expanding their flavours, training people’s pallets
    • He thinks we’ll see more flavours coming into meat processing. He has one contact that has 50 flavours of Bratwurst
  • The demand for quality is increasing
    • In ‘the old days’ it was more about the numbers. 
    • E.g. ‘Certified Angus Beef’ – It’s the upper two thirds of Choice
    • Almost as high as Prime
  • USDA is responsible for grading the meat
  • Choice vs Prime
    • It’s grading standards, done at meat inspection time
    • Each animal is inspected antemortem and post-mortem
    • There is always a Veterinary Medical Officer who is the Inspector In Charge
      • Suspect carcasses are put aside for this person to pass a ruling
      • They’re looking for tumours etc
    • Prime is best, then Choice, then Select. 
      • Meat lower than that (No Role) goes to further processing such as ground beef, value added products, thermal meats (stews)
        • Nothing wrong with the meat, just fat content, or sex of animal, or how it’s been fed, or its age
        • It’s not wastage
      • Select tends to have less fat
      • Prime has the most marbling
    • You wouldn’t want Prime ground beef – it would be too fatty
      • Something grass fed or Select would be better
  • Grass Fed vs Grain Fed
    • Grass Fed is really gaining in popularity
    • It’s ethics and taste hand-in-hand
    • There was a study done at Texas A&M University into the Health Aspects differences between Grass and Grain Fed and there was no difference found
    • Grain fat is higher fat
  • There are several fat deposits
    • Kidney Heart and Pelvic Fat – animals are born with it, removed at the time of butchering the animal
    • Subcutaneous Fat – the fat under the skin
    • Intermuscular fat – fat between the muscles ‘seam fat’
    • Intramuscular fat – fat in the muscle / marbling
      • Intramuscular fat can only be done in the last 120 days or so of the animals’ lives and depends on their feeding
      • Breeding programs are also important
  • Dan didn’t think the grass-fed industry would flourish but it has
    • Dry-Aged Grain Fed 28 days steaks are best 
    • 150 – 175 days is really pushing it
    • 28 days wet or dry – if that’s not good enough, it’s not going to any better
    • Steaks are often known as ‘Middle Meats’
  • Wet vs Dry Ageing
    • Wet ageing
      • Breaking down the sub-primals and connective tissue in the vac bag, without removing moisture
    • Dry ageing removes moisture, thereby increasing the beef flavour remaining
    • In ‘the old days’, whole carcasses were kept in coolers with infrared and blacklights to keep the bacteria down
      • Coolers were 100% stainless steel and had to be scrubbed with iodine based cleaners 
    • Now you see coolers lined with salt rock etc
    • Now ageing primal and subordinate
      • Requires a lot of trimming, making it very expensive for businesses
      • It shrinks over time too, and the longer you hold it the more it costs
      • Trimmings should be thrown out as that is where the bacteria grows. Do not keep them for grinding into mince
  • Dry-Ageing not recommended for competitions
    • 12 hours at 225F will break down the meat
    • ‘Cook ‘em til the bones pull’
  • Wet-Ageing briskets not recommended either
    • No advantage either
    • The heat breakdown renders the ageing process redundant 
  • Halal vs Kosher vs Modern Meat Processing
    • Kosher and Halal have been outlawed in either Sweden or Denmark
    • Safety and animal welfare issues are a concern
    • The ‘Animal Slaughter Act’ says the animal must be unconscious or impervious to pain before killing
    • Animal welfare is being taken more seriously now than ever before
    • Many major packing plants are now offering to run live webcams for transparency and spend billions of dollars per year in the name of animal welfare
  • In a modern plant:
    • Cattle are unloaded at facility, rested, and given water. If they are held til next day, they must be fed. Most plants will try and get them in and done on one day
      • Antemortem (live) inspections are done on all cattle. Animals that don’t look right are separated
      • They are moved to a stunning box. There is a ‘V’ type restrainer with a conveyor that moves them and restrains movement
      • Most plants use pneumatic stunner, or captive-bolt stunners
    • Hogs are electrically or C02 stunned
      • The conveyor belts go underground, and animals are rendered unconscious with C02
      • Chains go around the legs, the animal is lifted up and they are exsanguinated (bled out) 
  • Halal & Kosher
    • Live kills, with a knife
    • In Dan’s opinion, Kosher is the most humane way
    • Kosher is a lot more prescribed than Halal
      • There is a particular blade length requirement: twice as long
      • The blade is checked prior and immediately slaughter
        • A fingernail is run along the blade and if there are any nicks on the blade, and animal is not Kosher
      • Rabbi’s do their own inspection
      • Certain fats and not okay
      • Hindquarters are not okay
      • Meat needs to be salted and washed
    • The conscious state of the animal is the biggest difference between Modern and Halal/Kosher
  • What’s coming up in the future:
    • Mississippi has just passed a law that says meat grown in a lab CANNOT be labelled and sold as ‘meat’
    • Consumers are now demanding quality
      • More branding will appear
      • New and increased variety in flavourings
      • Major meat packers are consolidating. Many are being purchased by overseas companies
      • There will be new retail cuts to maximise usage of the carcass E.g. the flat iron steak
    • Confinement feeding operations
      • Large scale in pork and poultry 
      • There will be a movement away from this toward ‘free-range’
      • More choice with grain / grass-fed
  • On Adrenaline and Stress
    • You really don’t want adrenaline in the meat
    • The more agitated an animal, the more the adrenaline, the lower quality meat
    • You end up with a ‘Dark Cutter’
      • The way muscle looks when it’s stressed
    • In the Pork sector there is a problem with PSE: Pale, Soft, Exudative Meat
      • This is one reason why animals need to be taken care of prior to slaughter
    • At Dan’s family processing plant, they’d turn on the radio to a soothing station
  • The Environmental Impact of the Meat Industry
    • Animals used to be taken on a rail car from Kansas City to Chicago for up to a week with no food or water


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