Deb Aksamit grew up surrounded by the aroma of sizzling, top-quality meat. Her family’s history was rooted in the meat business. She even learned how to cut her own meat.
So after Aksamit moved from Nebraska, "the beef state," to the East Valley in 1998, she longed for the flavors of home. She eyed the meat cases in the local stores, searching for prime steaks and other top-quality beef to satisfy her craving. The effort, though, was unsuccessful.
"You just couldn’t get a good steak," says Aksamit, her hands on her hips as she recounts her frustrating quest for fine meat.
It wasn’t just her imagination. USDA prime-grade beef is almost impossible to find in supermarkets these days, but the cheaper grades, choice and select, abound. It has become a trend over the last decade, leaving meat connoisseurs, restaurateurs and consumers who love gourmet cooking with few options but to search extensively for a specialty retailer that carries prime beef or to start doing business with mom-and-pop butcher shops.
Albertsons, for example, - doesn’t carry any prime cuts in stores, except in Santa Fe, N.M., and Jackson Hole, Wyo., where the chain has enough demand to sustain a steady supply, says spokeswoman Donna Eggers.
Safeway, Bashas’ and Whole Foods, an organic and natural foods chain, don’t carry prime in their stores.
But consumers who dine out can get a prime cut at restaurants, and travelers will find prime at hotels. In the East Valley, gourmet shoppers can find prime at AJ’s Fine Foods, a sister chain of Bashas’.
Ron Gustafson, a livestock analyst for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, cites changes in health advice as one of the forces behind the decline of prime. "In the 1980s and 1990s, all the experts told consumers that they ought to eat lean beef," he says.
The availability of primegrade beef peaked in 1976 at 1.4 billion pounds — about 10 percent of the 13.9 billion pounds graded by USDA that year. By 1989, prime made up only 2.6 percent, or 335 million pounds, of the 12.9 billion pounds graded.
Stores, restaurants and other food service businesses can sell consumers three grades of beef — prime, choice and select. Prime is considered the top grade and costs the most. It also tends to have an even blend of fat, unlike choice and select, which are usually leaner. Experts, though, say the flavor is in the fat.
USDA graders determine meat quality by considering two key traits: The animal’s age and marbling — the mixture of lean meat and fat. Cattle must be 42 months or younger for their meat to be graded.
Grading programs are voluntary, but packers participate because almost all restaurants and grocery stores require grading. Shoppers can check the grade of beef they’re buying by reading labels.
Adding to the confusion: Companies are coming up with their own beef brands.
For example, Safeway sells cuts of choice and select beef under its Ranchers Reserve brand. The beef is supplied by Excel Corp., one of the nation’s largest meatpackers.
Safeway spokeswoman Kerry Luginbill says that while USDA meat experts grade the beef according to federal standards, Safeway has its own criteria for judging whether meat is worthy of its brand. The company chooses meat according to the size of the rib-eye and marbling. Like all of its competitors, Safeway is aiming for tender, tasty beef.
"We have established higher standards for our internal product," says Luginbill.
Even if consumers know to look for the label, "my guess is that a significant number of them don’t really understand the grades," says Randy Huffman, vice president of scientific affairs for the American Meat Institute Foundation, an industry organization.
But they do understand cost, especially these days, as beef prices near record highs.
A boneless, choice rib-eye or steak sells for $9.66 a pound, according to the most recent USDA data.
For a prime cut, consumers have to shop and compare. Because it’s in such small supply and most goes to restaurants and hotels, USDA doesn’t track prime scanner price; it only follows wholesale.
Wholesale prime rib averaged $6.72 per pound last month. By the time it gets to a retailer or restaurant, though, the price goes up because of labor and preparation costs, plus a percentage tacked on for profit.
Bashas’ also doesn’t sell prime, unlike its high-end sister chain, AJ’s, because the two entities serve customers with different needs.
At Bashas’, "the reason we don’t carry prime there is because our customers there are focused on price," says spokeswoman Stefanie Contreras. "For AJ’s, of course, our customers like the prime cuts of meat for gourmet cooking."
Saving money isn’t an issue with consumers like Aksamit who savor the taste of gourmet. Unsatisfied with what she saw in supermarkets, Aksamit came up with her own solution for getting prime.
In December, she and her business partner, David Ackers, opened a small meat shop, Cave Creek Meats & Seafood. There, they customcut meat, sell seafood and swap recipes and cooking tips with customers.