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Prime Steaks

John Mariani
From the Print Edition:
maduro issue, Winter 93/94

(continued from page 2)

Almost all Prime meat is bought from a handful of Midwest meat packers, principally IBP out of Nebraska, Monfort out of Colorado, and Excel out of Kansas. These companies don't raise cattle; they slaughter and pack it up in a Cryovac bag for shipment to wholesalers, retailers and restaurants. If the meat is left in the Cryovac bag with its own juices, "wet aging" (actually a form of decay) takes place at a slower rate. "Dry aging" refers to meat removed from the bag and aged in cold, dry lockers, a process preferred by the best steakhouses.

Because of the proliferation of steakhouses around the country, many industry veterans wonder just how low competitors are willing to go to get what they call Prime.

"Listen," says Pat Cetta of Sparks, which maintains its own proprietary aging cycle, "The difference between Choice and Prime can be $6 or $7 a pound, and some guys are buying black Angus, which is a stockier animal with a shorter loin, but it's not the best breed for a great steak. Others use what are called 'gravy cuts,' whose water-soluble proteins and collagens go out of the meat when it's cooked and make good gravy. That doesn't happen in a great steak."

Other steakhouse owners don't worry quite so much about the supply of Prime. Ruth Fertel, owner of the Ruth's Chris chain, argues, "the truest supply-and-demand commodity is beef. As long as there's a demand for Prime, the producers will produce it. If Ruth's Chris is going to open up another two or three units, I call my supplier three or four months in advance and tell him what our needs will be and he'll have the meat for us."

While most industry spokespeople say that kind of supply and demand can be met, they caution that raising cattle for Prime is not quite as mechanical as building VCRs--or as predictable. The facts of animal husbandry dictate that it takes about two-and-a-half years for a steer to grow big enough for slaughter, and, based on the breed and the individual animal's genetics, there's no assurance that you'll get a steer with enough interior fat to grade out at Prime.

"No large producer targets Prime," says Terry Dockerty, director of meat-science programs at the National Livestock and Meat Board. "It's just not very economical for a producer to feed an animal longer so that it grows much fatter. Remember, it is the meat packers who request the grading, not the producers." Harry Katz of Stockyards Packing Co., a Chicago wholesaler, agrees: "I don't think anybody is taking out cattle just to make them Prime meat. I couldn't. And right now, if a new account of mine wanted to buy only Prime, I'd have to turn them down. There's just not enough out there."

The fact is, Prime is more or less an accident of breeding, not a coerced result. "To a small extent, you can bulk up an animal by extra feeding," says Jens Knutsons, director of economic research and industry affairs for the American Meat Institute, "but it's really a function of genetics. There are about 70 different breeds of cattle in this country, and only a very few make a good beef animal because they tend to put on the kind of intermuscular fat that producers want. Producers don't want external fat, because they have to trim it off and their yield is lower. But the main thing is that some individual animals put on more fat while others in the same herd, eating the same feed, don't. And those fatter steers are the ones that grade Prime after they've been slaughtered."

As Pat Cetta says, "There's no mystery to it. People are waiting for a magic supplier or producer. It doesn't exist. You just have to be able to look at an individual carcass and cartilage and say, 'that one's good; that one's not so good.' We buy only the best of what's in the market."

Another bone of contention has to do with what the animal eats. Some, like Ruth Ferrel, swear they use only animals raised on corn.

Others, like the Chicago Chop House, contend that finishing off a steer on alfalfa gives it a nice sweet flavor. And others in the industry say it's almost impossible to tell what the animal ate. "Fat's fat," says one producer.

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