Scott Barao sold 420 pounds of ground beef one day last week at his Frederick County farm store, up from the 100 pounds he moves most weekdays. The reason for the run on his $4.95-a-pound burger meat: Bad beef in the news.
"Every time there's a ground beef recall, our ground beef business in our little market triples," said Barao, owner of Hedgeapple Farm in Adamstown.
Or quadruples, at least this time around, a few days after Fairbank Farms in Ashville, N.Y., recalled nearly 546,000 pounds of ground beef. Two people died, and dozens of others were sickened after eating the meat, which is believed to have been contaminated with E. coli O157:H7. The meat was sold by Trader Joe's, Giant, BJ's Wholesale Club and other retailers in several states, including Maryland.
While the meat industry contends the incidence of tainted meat is rare and getting rarer all the time, outbreaks of deadly E. coli have some consumers hunting for a safer burger.
Some seek out local farmers such as Barao who oversee their cattle from pasture to slaughterhouse to grinder to sale - and put just one animal in every package of ground beef, as opposed to bits from thousands of cows, the number the movie "Food Inc." claims sits between the average fast-food bun.
"We don't blend," said Barao, a retired University of Maryland animal science professor who leads the Maryland Cattlemen's Association and the Maryland Beef Council. "We don't have Uruguayan ground beef and Hedgeapple ground beef. We have animal No. 301 in this package."
Other consumers turn to small butcher shops and gourmet groceries such as Graul's that grind meat in small batches. And for the true burger control freak, there's the home meat grinder.
"It's your hands in that meat, not anybody else's," said Mary Chris Ashbrook, a representative for KitchenAid, which sells a $46 grinder attachment for its standing mixers. "When you buy a burger at the butcher shop, it's been touched by at least three sets of hands."
Avoiding industrial burgers does not require grinding, or even cooking, at home. There's a fast-food burger joint in Baltimore serving grass-fed, organic, free-range beef, all of it ground right in the restaurant. Elevation Burger, a seven-store chain based in Falls Church, Va., opened its first Maryland restaurant in March, by the Whole Foods in Harbor East.
Every other day, the Harbor East restaurant grinds about 120 pounds of meat, all from the same farm and slaughterhouse, said Bruce Hicks, general manager of that location. A single-patty burger costs $3.89.
"It's not a fad, it's a trend, a return to how we were eating many, many years ago," said Elevation Burger partner Michael Berger. (Berger, incidentally, hears so many jokes about his last name that he introduces himself as, "My name is Michael, ironically, Berger.")
Chef John Shields of Gertrude's at the Baltimore Museum of Art gets his ground beef from Springfield Farms in Sparks.
"We use a local guy, and they grind their own burgers so I know where the cow came from and I can find them real fast" if there's a problem, Shields said. "When you have these conglomerates, huge multinational people, doing ground beef, I mean, parts of the animals are coming from three or four different countries and it all ends up in one bag of ground beef. And how ... do you know what's going wrong where?"
Smaller does not necessarily mean safer, even critics of industrial meat concede. A tiny slaughterhouse or butcher can have poor sanitation practices just as large ones sometimes do. A home cook can grind pathogens into a piece of meat as readily as salt and pepper.
But some see advantages to going smaller, to un-supersizing their burgers.
They argue that pasture-raised cattle arrive at the slaughterhouse cleaner and healthier than feedlot animals that have spent their last months ankle deep in manure. And that smaller slaughterhouses and processors work at a slower pace than their industrial counterparts, making it easier to detect contamination. And that grinding beef in smaller batches reduces the odds of getting bad meat and helps contain and trace any problems that do arise.
"In these big slaughter factories, they're slaughtering 390 cows an hour," said Tony Corbo, a lobbyist for Food and Water Watch, a Washington advocacy group. "And your E. coli comes when they dehide the cow and if there's any remnants of manure in the hide of the cow and it gets onto the carcass itself, and during the evisceration process, when they puncture an intestine that might have E. coli-contaminated feces and it gets onto the meat. The lines operate at such high speeds, it's hard to catch it visually."
By contrast, Nick Maravell of Nick's Organic Farm in Adamstown takes his animals to a nearby slaughterhouse that handles no more than 40 animals a day.
"Somebody's paying attention at the animal-by-animal level," Maravell said. "That doesn't necessarily make a clean operation, but it shows they have a certain integrity."
But Janet Riley, spokeswoman for the American Meat Institute, disputed "this notion of small is better."
"It's not the size, it's the system," she said.
Large animal-processing plants have the latest technology and are required, unlike mom-and-pop operations, to have on-site inspectors, she said.
"We get this idea that if it's a large plant, it's going faster," she said. "But they also have more people on the line. ... If an inspector believes the line is going too fast, or is not clean enough, they can slow down that line or they can stop the line."
As for the perceived advantage of blending fewer animals into each batch of ground beef, she said, "I don't quite understand the logic of it." Asked about the thousands-of-animals-per-burger figure in "Food Inc.," Riley would say only that the number of animals in a hamburger varies depending on the size of the processing plant. She also said the number is irrelevant.
"Regardless of how many animals may contribute to that particular ground beef, all of it is being produced under federal inspection and a lot of technology," Riley said. "There really is no logical argument to say to someone, it's safer to grind in a smaller store. If that makes you feel better, go ahead, but don't be under an illusion there's some sort of safety benefit."
Whether driven by illusion or good sense, demand is growing for nonindustrial burgers.
At Graul's Market, a small chain with locations in Baltimore County, Annapolis and the Eastern Shore, meat is ground several times a day at each store, in batches that top out at about 20 pounds. They use only whole muscle cuts of U.S. beef, some of it from Monkton-based Roseda Beef, said owner Dennis Graul.
J.W. Treuth & Son's in Oella, in Baltimore County, makes and sells as much as 500 pounds of ground beef a day for its butcher shop and a few local restaurants. In the world of meat-processing, that is considered small-scale. Most of the meat comes from the slaughterhouse Treuth's operates right behind the butcher shop, though meat from other suppliers is sometimes added.
"They're buying 2,000-pound combo bins of these trimmings," Jon Hylton said of the big operators.
Hylton, a cattle buyer who oversees quality control at Treuth's, makes a claim that hardly seems like bragging rights in an industry known for Big Macs and Whoppers: "We do things smaller than everyone else."
But Hylton is not particularly down on Big Beef. If people cooked and handled ground beef properly, he noted, it would be safe to eat, even with E. coli.
"I know this is un-American," he said, "but take personal responsibility for what you do, and it shouldn't be a problem."
Hylton cooks his own burgers to 165 degrees, five degrees above the recommended minimum temperature. This from a Catonsville native who fondly recalls eating Dukehart's raw beef-and-onion on pumpernickel ($1.25, Michelob included).
"I wouldn't eat it now," he said. "And it might be a one in 10 million chance, but who wants to take the chance?"
Tips for home grinding
* Cut meat into 2-inch strips
* Freeze for about 20 minutes
* Run through the grinder twice, first using the coarse plate, then the fine plate.
Tips for safe beef handling
* Store ground beef at 40 degrees or below. Cook or freeze within one or two days of purchase. Defrost in the refrigerator, not at room temperature.
* Cook to 160 degrees, using an instant-read thermometer to confirm internal temperature. The color of cooked ground beef varies and is not a reliable indicator of being done.
* Wash hands and cooking surfaces thoroughly before and after handling raw meat.
Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service