Is it really possible to taste chemicals like antibiotics and growth hormones used in the production of factory-raised meat? Marissa Guggiana of The Butcher’s Guild swears she can.

Author of Primal Cuts: Cooking with America’s Best Butchers, Guggiana says she’s eaten meat that’s “clean” (i.e., from animals that graze on pasture, free of hormones and antibiotics) for so long it’s hard to face what she calls “commodity” meat, like a supermarket steak or carne asada from a taco truck. “I can literally taste the chemicals in it,” Guggiana says.

But can she? I put the question to food scientist Harold McGee, author of Keys to Good Cooking. He doubted that anyone could taste chemical residues in meat, though as anyone who’s ever bought a grass-fed burger knows, factory-raised and free-range meat tastes totally different, chemical residues aside. The higher fat content in grain-fed “commodity” beef gives it a more unctuous quality but a milder taste than grass-fed, which is leaner and has a pronounced meatiness. “That probably has to do with basic feed composition and effects on the animal’s metabolism,” McGee speculates. Not chemicals.

But “chemicals” can cover a lot of things—stress hormones, for instance. “A lot of the commercial processors want the animal to be stressed so that there’s lots of blood running through it,” says Melanie Eisemann, co-owner of San Francisco butcher shop Avedano’s. “It makes the meat look redder.”

To put this “tasting the chemical rainbow” idea to rest I thought I’d do an experiment. My plan: to cook two otherwise identical cuts of beef—a New York strip—one I’d source from the supermarket and one from a pastured-meats butcher. But the very difficulty of finding two equivalent cuts showed just how huge the gap between “clean” meat and “dirty” really is. It was depressing.

The grass-fed steak I got from the Marin Sun Farms butcher shop in Oakland, California, was a beauty: red as Satsuma plum flesh, capped with a cream-colored fat, and two inches thick. Cost: $19.95 per pound, nearly $10 for my rather small specimen.

There wasn’t much beauty at the Safeway half a mile away. Except for some sad-looking T-bones, steaks came in bulk, like the “Extreme Value Pack” of five steaks I scored for $29.64 (cost per pound: $7.99), less than half the price of grass-fed, but also filled with steaks half as thick. They were shrink-wrapped to a flimsy black tray, but the flesh was certainly red—was I looking at the telltale red of meat from an animal terrified at slaughter?

I set a sauté pan on the burner, cranked up the flame, sprinkled in a pinch of salt, and cooked the two steaks.

It was an exercise in futility, as it turns out. Of course the Marin Sun Farms meat was delicious: juicy, with elastic flesh that acted the way healthy muscle should. The taste was mineral, beneath an acidity that made my mouth water even as I chewed, and the fat had a clean smell, rich like suet. The sad little Safeway steak was awful, of course. Even at medium rare, the texture was dried-out, with fibers that seemed oddly compressed. The acidity that seemed so bright in the grass-fed beef was muted here.

And what about those chemicals I was tasting for? The flavor in the factory-raised steak was so dull overall, the texture so compromised, that it was hard to taste anything. But if you use the word chemicals as shorthand for meat your senses register as drab, then sure: I tasted them—though I’m not ready to swear off the taco truck just yet.

Image source: Flickr member garann under Creative Commons

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