A bustling business since 1959, Ralph’s Packing Company has been a fixture in Perkins, Oklahoma for four generations. What started as a packing plant, processing animals on a weekly basis, has evolved into a business that is carving out a different niche for itself.
“Ground meat has been a long-standing staple here,” says Jake Nelson, food safety coordinator at Ralph’s Packing Company. “Ground beef, ground pork, sausages – these are our staples.”
Like many other small meat processors, Jake Nelson says Ralph’s Packing Company sees a move towards more direct marketing of meat.
“People who own and raise livestock have changed the way they market these animals, away from what we classically call the sales barn towards more direct-to-consumer marketing,” Nelson explains.
Misinformation about meat
Accelerated by the pandemic, the internet and social media have opened the door to more direct sales. Although the web has opened new doors for local meat suppliers due to consumers’ growing appetite for frozen beef and pork, it is these same avenues that can also be a source of misinformation about meat.
“Probably some of the biggest misconceptions of those who have ended up on corn- or grain-based diets are the environmental impacts they might have,” says Gretchen MafiProfessor and Ralph & Leila Boulware Endowed Chair in the Department of Animal and Food Sciences at Oklahoma State University
As a meat scientist, Mafi has studied the scientific differences between beef from animals finished on a corn-based diet and animals finished on grass. She says both practices produce meat that has many similarities.
“They have all grazed for the vast majority of their lives,” says Mafi. “And they’re only finished on corn for a short time and have very minimal nutritional differences.”
Mafi says grass-finished meat is a niche market, accounting for only about 5% of the total beef produced in the United States today. At Ralph’s Packing Company you will only find corn finished beef, but this is mainly due to consumer demand.
“There is a huge difference in carcass characteristics, product attributes, aroma, palatability and visual characteristics of grain-finished beef,” Nelson explains. “It’s a stark difference between the two, and there isn’t one better than the other.”
Instead, Nelson says it all comes down to preference. But much of this preference can be attributed to taste. Mafi says that from a meat scientist’s perspective, flavor is due to one major factor: the marbling of the meat.
“That fat, that marbling, contributes flavor, it contributes juiciness and then a little tenderness,” she says. “It’s really important for that food satisfaction that we get from a steak or a roast.”
With no nutritional difference between grass-finished and grain-finished beef, Mafi says science also proves that grass-finished is not more environmentally friendly, which is one of the biggest misconceptions among consumers today.
“The research just shows us that there really is no difference between sustainability, environmental impact or carbon footprint. And sometimes even finished grass, because it takes longer to reach that market weight or deliver the same amount of beef pounds, it can have a higher environmental impact than finished grass in a feedlot. Mafi explains.
Some misconceptions about weed beef being healthier for people and the environment comes from places like Butcher Box, which is a subscription meat service offering only grass-finished meat. On the website, Butcher Box claims that grass-fed beef has emerged as a healthier, leaner, and more humane alternative to the standard beef you can find at the grocery store.
“Grass fed” versus “grass finished”
Meat scientists say that is simply not true, one is not superior to the other. Instead, it’s terms like “grass-fed” that can be misleading and confusing.
“It’s probably best described as grass-fed and finished because we finish these animals to an end point,” Nelson explains. “Their purpose in life is to be a food source for us, so we have to be careful about the terminology we use so we don’t confuse consumers.”
For someone who has studied beef, what kind of production method does Mafi prefer? Well, she says it all comes down to taste and personal preference.
“I definitely prefer finished cattle with corn or other grains,” she says. “It just has a more beefy, juicier flavor, it’s generally more tender. They’re going to have more intermuscular fat to give it that extra flavor and juiciness to give it that beef flavor intensity, the buttery beef fat we associate. Also, I’m not adding a ton of calories just by adding that extra marbling.
Whether you go for finished meat over grass or finished steak over corn, meat experts say it’s all a matter of preference, and they serve up the facts that beef is what it is. dinner for years to come.