For most shoppers, the headlines about "pink slime," what the beef industry calls boneless lean beef trimmings, were upsetting and stirred emotions to the point that retailers, fast fooderies and the producer itself took action to eliminate the filler; which also acted to help reduce pathogens that could lead to food safety problems. Even Dr. Elizabeth Hagen, USDA's Under Secretary for Food Safety was compelled to make a statement to explain the process and situation.
This column is not about "pink slime" and whether it is good or bad -- it is about what happens next.
We have already seen food retailers across the country from Stew Leonard's to ShopRite to Kroger to Safeway to Fresh & Easy advertise in-store and elsewhere that they do not sell ground beef with the ingredient; hoping to reassure their present customers and attract new ones. The Associated Press reported that Fresh & Easy has gone so far as to promote a Pink Slime Swap Meat where shoppers can trade another store's ground beef for Fresh & Easy "slime-free" ground beef on Wednesday March 28, while supplies last (the swap can be made for up to 2 lbs. of products).
After the ads stop, and the fervor dies down we will be faced with change. The first is clearly the price of ground beef that used to add this filler will rise. The second is that unless the industry uses another pathogen inhibitor (like irradiation) there will be more instances of food safety problems in ground beef. And the third, the one I am truly excited about, is that this may well force supermarkets back into hiring butchers in-store.
Each fall, I present what I believe will be the top food trends for the coming year. In late December of 2009 I took a look around the country, queried our SupermarketGuru Consumer Panel, and came to the conclusion that in 2010 "the hot trend for 2010 will be the re-emergence of the local butcher, both within supermarkets as well as free standing establishments -- where shoppers will go, select the cuts of meat they prefer and have it ground on demand." Since that time we have seen independent butcher shops cropping up across the country. And while a supermarket grinding their own beef, behind a glass walled butcher area in a store is not a 100% food safety guarantee, I have no question that it raises the confidence of shoppers.
Bob Buonomano, owner of the Windham IGA in Connecticut, a former trained butcher himself, started a program 12 years ago -- Help Save the Butchers! -- to educate both consumer and other retailers about the information and quality available through skilled butchers throughout the country.
There is no question that shoppers have been seeking out more local foods, reading more Country of Origin labels and having the desire to simply know more about where our food comes from. The logical next steps will most likely be the increased distribution from smaller beef producers who are guaranteeing and proving their product is 100% ground beef, and most certainly retailers who are upping their meat department to include trained butchers that will educate and empower shoppers about meats of all kinds and show us what's going on behind the glass.
The butcher is back! Or at least I for one hope so.
Do you know a supermarket butcher? I hope you'll share your experience with our fellow readers right here.
Follow Phil Lempert on Twitter: www.twitter.com/PhilLempert