Secrets from a Butcher on Buying Pork...

Dear BBQ Friend:

After my newsletter on Berkshire Pork, one of my newsletter subscribers provided this useful information on buying pork. Trust me - the following words are very rare secrets from a butcher that you should feel privileged to read...

In a recent newsletter, Bill Anderson discussed his frustration with trying to find consistent pork cuts for competition cooking. Following a couple email conversations back and forth I offered to put some information into a format for his readers who might be sharing the same problems. buying pork

I do not pretend to have all the answers to cooking to win, for that I will refer you to Bill Anderson over at However I believe a little more information of the production, packaging, and distribution of the meat might make it easier to find the cuts you desire.

The first question is why do I believe I can help when I have never entered a sanctioned event? This is very fair to ask, so let me give a very brief bio.

I was raised in a small, tightly-knit religious community that a lot of the neighbors confused us with the Amish. We had cars and electricity and modern appliances but few other differences. Our families got together for butchering two or three times a year and butchered seemingly small herds of pigs and occasional cattle. As I grew older I was dissatisfied doing things "as we have always done them," and started learning professional butchering methods for the various processes. My main jobs became sausage making, sugar curing hams and bacon, and help where needed. (If you work with butts or have an interest in sausage making, I learned much from Rytek Kutas and his book Great Sausage Recipes and Meat Curing available from . Most of his sausage component was butts. For purposes of disclosure, I have no connection with the company except as a customer since he was selling from a small 14 page catalog.)

As relates to this article - In my adult years, I worked for two major packing houses. I worked at one for quite a number of years. I worked both production and quality related offices. Enough about me.

First let me say that when I use the term "Quality" in this article, let me stress that there is nothing wrong with any of the meat as far as eating. Nothing knowingly goes out of the door that would have any health risk but Quality as we mention it here deals only with visual and presentation.

When you pick up a vacuum-packed piece of meat with either a store label or a producer label on it, you generally expect almost every piece to be similar with moderate changes in weight. The reality is that it depends on a.) the contract specifications that the store has with the producer and b.) the specific label and the specifications associated with that label.

Without using the producer name, one company that I worked for had premium products where each piece was inspected by quality assurance personnel to make sure that it met specification. At the other end of the scale they produced general production grade of the same piece of meat that got inspected at a rate of about 15 pieces per 4 or 5 tons of meat. In between were two other grades with various specifications regarding trim and fat thickness allowed but almost always had the latter inspection requirements.

To answer the question many of you have asked, "Why is there so much variation in the same product from the same vendor?" Let me give you an idea of how it is produced.

Most meat packing houses have a high turnover. Recently the one close to me had run at over 12% turnover per month for several years. This is compounded by the fact that most new hires are placed on a second shift job so on second shift it quite easily can be 25% of the whole work force has less than 1 month experience. Additionally, the new supervisors and other management get their start on second shift.

The second shift has to get the entire product out the door no matter what the time they finish due to USDA shelf life timelines that start when production starts, so while first shift can go home on a schedule and leave the product for second shift to finish in addition to its own work.

Due to the high turnover, almost all training is done on the job. When I first started production, it was over three months before I could get someone to show me what the specifications were for my job. Up to that point, it was the line supervisor, trainer, or supervisor coming by and yelling over the noise, "take a little more off," or, "take a little less off," and then going on to the next problem. Given my background in management, I was curious so asked around and found as many as ¾ of the people on the line had no idea of what the exact specification of what they were supposed to do, they just had an idea what the end result should look like.

A few more factors that cause inconsistent quality: Quite likely the production workers have been working for mandatory 6 days a week, understaffed, very short breaks, putting out a product so that they can process all 7200-7500 head a day per shift and go home. Most plants monitor how often you go to the bathroom and will discipline you if you go too frequently; I have seen the figure of 3 times a month quite often.

I have often seen places on the line where only one person is doing a job and when they have to sharpen their knife, as few as 2 pieces might go by and as many as 10 might go by and that particular operation will not be performed on that piece of meat. Keeping in mind that the average time to process a piece of meat is about 3 seconds before the next piece is ready. If the line works well as a sub unit, the other workers will let it go by and bury it in the pile of meat and hope that QC doesn't find it and make them rework the combo.

Often where there is a supervisor who is exceptionally difficult, a lot of product will unnecessarily end up either in the trim combos or a poor job will be done just to get the meat processed so that workers can get home.

The last thing that I will mention as a contributing factor is break times. Depending if you are working an 8 or 10 hour shift, you will get either one or two 15 min. breaks with a 30 min. break for lunch. However, deducted from that time is the time taken to walk from your work station to the break area which is often 300-500 feet each way over slippery floors, and then removing and putting on all the layers of personal protective gear, called donning and doffing. USDA as well as good health practices prohibits wearing this clothing to lunchroom, bathroom, or other non-processing areas. In reality a 15 min. break is actually less than 7 min. so simple exhaustion will be a huge contributing factor.

So now we have looked at how inconsistencies occur, how do we look for the highest quality consistent cuts? I will focus on mostly butts and ribs for this group of readers, with a few additional comments for family enjoyment.

1. If you are in a rural area, get to know your small-scale butchers and locker plants. There are a number of plants that do butchering as little as one day a week and then make sausage, hamburger, etc the rest of the time. Once they know what you want and when, your life can become easier.

To illustrate, I live in a county with 23,000 people and within a 20 mile radius there are 3 locker plants that do butchering and all have their own niche markets.

2. In more urban areas you will find specialty shops that order in primal cuts of meat and then they break it down and process from there. Get to know these people and look at their product. If their product looks like what you want to use, discuss your needs and ask if they can order this quality regularly for you. (As a marketing note, if you like what you see and you have a good rapport with them, don't forget the possibilities of them as a sponsor.)

3. If these steps have failed, find a shop that is willing to order in a specific product from a designated packing house. Most often you will have to buy it by the case to get it this way. In a case of 8 you might find that only 6 or 7 are exactly what you want and of those you will need to do some trimming or finishing yourself. Bill Anderson's book Competition BBQ Secrets has a number of helpful hints and illustrations regarding trimming cuts into high quality meats. The remainder can be freezer stock or used when the inlaws want a bit of 'Q. Later I will give some specific product numbers to consider.

4. The next step is looking for a private label that is consistent. To give an example; Kroger Silver Platter is a private label that I am fond of if I am not willing to get a case of meat. Kroger contracts with companies to produce meat to a certain specification and the butcher can or should be able to tell you the specification and the producer. An example is that all Kroger Silver Platter butts and ribs using an EST 244I code were produced at the Logansport Tyson Fresh Meats plant. All EST 244I Silver Platter products should be produced to the same specifications from week to week and Kroger store to Kroger store. The packers tend to be careful with the private label quality control because the last thing they want is a whole semi or shipping container rejected and returned due to lack of attention to quality. You can look up EST numbers online. Other private labels are for Safeway, Sam's Club, Costco, Meijer's, and Food Lion.

5. The final suggestion, and the least desirable, is going to a big box store and digging. If you look for a manufacturers tag; e.g. Tyson, Smithfield, Indiana Kitchen, etc. you need to know what grade you are seeing. Tyson has a premium grade that is called "Chairman Reserve". They have an "Ultra Trim" that has minimum fat, and a "Superior Trim" that is general production. Know your labels and contact the company's sales offices.

Here is some information that you might find useful for trying shop or to order from the butcher. While most is competition related, a little is just plain good eating.

I have used Tyson as an example for two reasons. First, they are sponsors of the KCBS. Second, in writing this, I talked to the QC supervisor at the local plant to verify some of the information that I already had and to get additional information. Other processors were too busy to get back with me other than an email reply to the phone call telling me that they were too busy to talk.

The premium product mentioned above, Tyson Chairman Reserve information from the corporate website is-

Compliant with all USDA standards for natural products

pH-selected for natural moisture-holding capacity

Color-graded to reduce variation

Hand-selected to ensure consistent marbling, firmness, texture and size

A second product that might be of interest is a pumped product using water and sea salt is the "Supreme Tender" line. This is an ultra trim item.

Indiana Packers Corporation sells much the same type of product. They export about ¾ of their production to Japan since they are owned by a Japanese company.

Their product is sold under the Indiana Kitchen brand or private label. They do not sell a product exactly like the Chairman Reserve line, but their product is individually inspected by line workers and sorted into respective grades rather than having quality assurance do the inspecting.

Their website has contact information for stores and vendors close to you.

Other information that you might be interested in knowing...

  • Premium grade butts and side ribs will have had about 6-7 seconds of attention on the production line.
  • Standard grade will have had 1-3 seconds of attention at best. If the worker was sharpening their knife it might not have gotten any attention, or with the high turnover these plants have, the person could be on their first day on the line.
  • Back ribs will likely have gotten little attention as they are the result of boneless loin production and are considered almost a nuisance in the plant. Only the premium grades will have had any attention paid at all.
  • When you look at a use by date it will allow you to know when the hog was butchered. For bone in meat the USDA mandates a use by date of 21 days after processing. Boneless meat is processed the same way and marked 31 days after processing.
  • The EST number tells what plant processed the meat. This can be looked up on line.

In my opinion and how I do it when cooking, I order a case lot and then will have 8-12 butts or 12-16 slabs of side ribs. I then have a selection from which to choose and then trim it out.

Tyson Product numbers you might be interested in – these are case packaging

F1213AG Pork Butt 2per bag/8 bags per box VacPac

F1213AA Pork Butt 1 per bag/8 bags per box VacPac

F2889AA St. Louis Rib 3 per bag/6 bags per box

F5924CH Side ribs 1 per bag/8 bags per box (untrimmed but uniform weight.)

I4889AAL Pumped Back Ribs 14 per box individual VacPac

I2234AAL Pumped Side Ribs 8 per box individual VacPAc

The other thing we do for family and friends is to buy a case of riblets (bottom left from making St. Louis Ribs. Marinade them overnight and grill them. They never want hamburgers or hot dogs again.


Bill Anderson