My Generation

An Encounter at the Meat Counter

What happens when a grocer says things like "organic is more nutritious" to the wrong person?

Last night, my mother-in-law and I found ourselves in town for a fundraising dinner. By "in town," I mean a town 30 minutes away that has a very nice, reasonably large Hy-Vee grocery store. And because we always need groceries, we ran into Hy-Vee after dinner.

On my list: ribeyes, for a special dinner. So I headed to the Hy-Vee meat counter. Turns out, the meat counter closed at 9 p.m. It was 9:04. So I turned to the meat case. My mother-in-law, Sharon, and I perused the offerings. Basically, we found two choices among the packaged ribeyes: Hy-Vee and Amana.

The Hy-Vee ribeyes looked select at best with very little marbling (this from someone who never judged meats but married a meats judger), but the Amana ribeyes looked better. However, none showed any sign of a USDA quality grade. And some were marked $9.99/lb and some were marked $5.99/lb.

About that time, a very nice manager came by and asked if we needed help. Grateful, I asked our questions. He explained that he wasn't the meats department expert but that we were right – the steaks were not marked with a quality grade. He thought the pricing difference was a labeling mistake. Then he went on to point out the Hy-Vee nutritional grades, marked on every package with a numeral ranking. The packages we held were numbered 26 and 30.

I was sort of tuning out his explanation of their in-store grading system, thinking, I'll take my USDA quality grades, thank you very much. But then he said something about the lower number meaning the food item is better for you. "So, the steak with a 26 is better for you than the steak with a 30," he said. "It's a better piece of meat."

Whoa. The 26 steak clearly had less marbling than the 30. Marbling is mono-unsaturated fat – the good stuff. Like olive oil. (Paging Mike Martz!)

"Wait a minute," I said. "That just means it's leaner and has less marbling – not that it's a better piece of meat. The 30 will actually taste better and it's better for you."

"Well, it’s just a nutritional value," he said, very nicely trying to defend their program. "It's a way to compare. Like an organic item would have a lower number, because it's more nutritious."

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Sharon take a step backward.

I replied carefully."But organic food is not more nutritious."

"Well, it just means, that, like, sometimes, if an organic item is more nutritious, it would have a lower…"

"But no. It's not more nutritious."

"Well, just sometimes, depending on the product…"

"No. Not sometimes. Never. It's never more nutritious. There's scientifically no difference."

The poor man. His eyes started shifting and he was clearly out of his element. He could not have been more gracious, though.

"Let's take a look in the meat case and see if we can find something there for you," he said. And he apologized profusely for not knowing more about the meat department. Then he commenced to uncovering the steaks, Sharon and I picked out two very lovely cuts of choice Amana steak (turns out, Amana uses only choice meat) and he wrapped them up for us. Then, for our trouble, he asked if it would be alright if he marked the $18 ticket down to $12. And I told him that would be really great and thank you so much.

I feel compelled to add that he acted most graciously and really did the very best job he could. He was trying very hard to make two customers happy and honestly just didn't know the truth. And one final disclaimer: I am all for choice, consumers should have a choice, and organic is a choice. But it is not a more nutritious choice. Boom.

The moral of the story? I think there are two.

For beef producers and farm folks: don't be afraid to stand up for what you know to be true (nicely). And for the grocery folks: beware the woman who actually knows what organic doesn't mean.

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